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A netball league of their own

22 October 2019, Impact of Our Work

Changing the game for girls in the Solomon Islands

Over the last three years, my role as resident graphic designer for Save the Children Australia has afforded me many opportunities to witness the tireless efforts of the people who champion the work of the organisation. Recently I was lucky enough to meet my Pacific colleague, Nelson Katovai, who works as a Provincial Manager in our Solomon Islands team. Nelson is a dedicated child protection advocate and generously shared his story with me — about life in Choiseul Province and his creative use of Netball to help ensure a brighter future for women and girls in his community.

Choiseul Province, Solomon Islands: A remote and beautiful paradise

Positioned on the edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the Solomon Islands are an archipelago of nearly 1000 tropical islands and small atolls, stretching between Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. There are two major island chains divided into nine separately governed provinces, each with a history steeped in European colonisation and military occupation. In spite of that, the Solomon Islands today remain largely under-developed, and the Islanders who live there maintain a strong sense of culture, custom and clan-based traditions. 

When Nelson speaks of his home in Choiseul, the overwhelming sentiment is of its remoteness. Choiseul Province is nestled in the northern-most territory of the Solomon Islands and the provincial capital can be found on Taro Island. A crushed-coral airstrip is serviced by the domestic airline, but more commonly, people journey to Taro from the country’s main centre — Honiara — by cargo or passenger ships. Smiling as he mentions the distance covered by the ships, Nelson says, “it takes quite a time to reach Choiseul”.

There are few roads, and the rugged tropical landscape makes it difficult to travel between villages on foot. Small outboard motor boats and hand-paddled canoes are largely used to connect the island communities across the province. On a clear day from Taro, you can just see the eastern coastline of the country’s closest neighbour, Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea.
 


Small boats are the most common mode of transport between the islands in Choiseul Province. 
Photo: Robert McKechnie/Save the Children

Committed to the cause

Two things struck me about Nelson when we first met — he is incredibly humble and softly spoken, but behind this humility lies a fierce advocate, a leader dedicated to the health and well-being of children in his community. When he speaks about his work, Nelson’s conviction shines through — he has a strong sense of social justice and believes that laws must be enforced to protect the most vulnerable, especially children. He is a well-known personality in his own community and a respected leader in Choiseul, proudly wearing his Save the Children shirts seven-days-a-week, even to church.
 


In all of his roles, Nelson lives and breathes the Save the Children mission. He is incredibly committed to advocating for the rights of children, ensuring that they are healthy, protected and have the opportunity to learn and thrive. Photo: Save the Children Solomon Islands


I asked Nelson to tell me about his current role as Provincial Manager in Choiseul, and it is clear that he wears many hats. He collaborates with community members, schools and village committees to establish by-laws that highlight the importance of child protection. Nelson’s work with the Provincial Government has seen the implementation of significant safety frameworks, aimed at creating a Choiseul free from domestic abuse. His greatest efforts, however, are focused on raising grass-roots awareness — promoting child rights and ensuring those most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, women and girls, are protected and free from violence.


The challenge posed by traditional social structures 

At first Nelson conducted the awareness sessions like community meetings; a representative from each household would attend and listen to messages about child rights, community responsibilities, and protecting children from all forms of violence. Whilst he observed strong community participation across the Province, Nelson noticed that the sessions weren’t effectively reaching the most vulnerable community members — women and girls. Throughout the Solomon Islands traditional social structures prevail, and men often occupy positions of leadership and head-of-house roles. Most commonly this meant that each awareness session would have many male participants, yet only a handful of women would be in attendance.

Nelson believes that these awareness sessions are critical to positive change in Choiseul, and should reach every girl, woman, mother and caregiver, so they themselves are empowered to form a protective environment for children in their community. To meet this challenge and ensure increased access for women and girls, Nelson came up with an ingenious solution, and thus the Supizae Community Netball League was born. 
 


Small boats are the most common mode of transport between the islands in Choiseul Province. 
Photo: Robert McKechnie/Save the Children

 

Nelson’s game-changing solution

The sporting competition first kicked into action in 2018, and unsurprisingly gained a swift following in the province. Netball is popular in the Solomon Islands and is played all year round, with the country fielding a women’s team at the recent Pacific Games held in Apia, Samoa. Nelson personally financed the initial competition in Supizae, and even procured a winner’s trophy to encourage community participation. The tournament doubles as a platform for social inclusion — creating a safe space for women and girls to realise their rights and responsibilities, and to promote important messages of child rights and protection.
 


Many women and girls participate in the netball league across Choiseul Province, and some teams have even created their own uniforms. Photo: Nelson Katovai/Save the Children Solomon Islands

Since its inception, two seasons have been played and with a third competition currently underway, the netball league is now the largest in the Choiseul Province. With more than 220 participants, Nelson’s initiative has meant that hundreds of women and girls have been able to access the valuable awareness sessions; and this incredible success has motivated the Provincial Government to expand the competition to include an additional league in Taro. 

Nelson tells me that presently, men in the community are also being encouraged to build their support for the netball league. Across the province, men and boys have been invited to join the teams’ general meetings, and already Nelson says he has seen a strong, positive turn-out.

Despite his humility, it is easy to see how proud Nelson is of this amazing initiative — he beams with enthusiasm as we talk. Choiseul Province is very lucky to have such a passionate advocate, who continues to explore innovative and creative ways to ensure a bright future for children in the Solomon Islands.

Meet Kelly

Meet Kelly

Kelly Rowe is our resident graphic designer and has been working for Save the Children Australia since 2016. She has worked for Save the Children across the Pacific, and holds a special place in her heart for the region.


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