Whether as mothers, aunties, grandmothers or sisters, women have long been the backbone of our communities. An Australian Rules football club in regional Victoria is making a point of this, celebrating women and the contribution they make within their own community in Shepparton.
Last Saturday, the Rumbalara Football Netball Club (RFNC) held its 13th annual Unity Cup, an Aussie Rules and Netball competition between their club and neighbouring Congupna Football Netball Club (CFNC). The event is not just an engaging day of sport, but is a celebration of Aboriginal women and the positive impact they make in their communities.
The RFNC has a long history of social inclusion and in its 22 years, it has supported local women through many initiatives both, on and off the field.
The club has nine women's netball teams and one women’s football team with 25 women now playing in their second season of women’s football and its netball teams have a varied age-range from seniors to juniors.
Off the field, the RFNC Board boasts nearly half female representation with women holding 50 per cent executive officer positions. A large number of local women work in support and volunteer roles at the club also. The long-running Unity Cup is a day where the community can come together to pay respect to these women who have played an active and significant role in local sports clubs and other community-led initiatives.
Last Saturday’s events begun with a formal Welcome to Country and Smoking Ceremony performed by Aunty Rochelle Patten, a Yorta Yorta elder, followed by the Walk of Solidarity led by her close friend, Wamba Wamba woman, Aunty Kaye Briggs. The Walk of Solidary is a special moment and yearly ritual where the community walk the length of the field with men of both RFNC and CFNC stand side-by-side on the field's edge, making a guard of honour the women in their lives and their communities.
The walk was followed by the President’s Luncheon with many distinguished guests in attendance including representatives from both RFNC and CFNC, community elders, dignitaries and this year’s special guest speaker, AFL's General Manager of Inclusion and Social Policy and Torres Strait Islander woman Tanya Hosch.
Greater Shepparton City Councillor, Seema Abdulla spoke on the work that the Council is doing in the women’s space and their support of the annual Unity Cup.
“Local council is proactively involved in the integration, unity and social cohesion of our communities and is proud to be a partner at these events,” Ms Abdullah said.
“It is important to acknowledge the contribution women make every day, including today at this special event
“Women play a very important role in the community in their different roles – they can be mothers, sisters, wives and also within professional roles. Greater Shepparton City Council has a women’s advisory committee and the role of the committee is to work on three principles: Gender, Equality and Diversity.”
Tanya Hosch spoke about racism, sexism and unity in sport and explained how many clubs have thrived through the contribution of women.
“Women have participated in footy as players, as cooks, as organisers and as administrators for such a long time so the growth in AFLW and its success is really encouraging women to take on the playing role,” Ms Hosch told NITV.
“We just saw with the NAIDOC Theme last year, Because Of Her We Can, that we don’t often see community initiatives that are really about celebrating women – but to do something like the Unity Cup which is really two footy clubs coming together and saying we are acknowledging the support of women in our communities and how important they are, and how important it is for women to feel strong and safe and continue to play that leadership role, is a really great thing.”
Ms Hosch talked about the importance of the Unity Cup and the work RFNC has done in the space of inclusion and equality, and by doing so it can lead to more pathways for women in the sport and inclusion for Indigenous people in general.
“Rumbalara has had such a long history with driving community cohesion and asking hard questions about the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are treated in the community and Rumbalara has been such an important part of that conversation.”
Being a special occasion to pay respect to strong women, NITV spoke with Elders who have been involved in the community and club. Aunty Kaye Briggs, whose advocacy for women and leadership has played an important role in her community over the years and subsequently lead this years' Solidarity Walk talked about their shared connection as caregivers and matriarchs.
“It was a special moment for all the women to gather and walk in unity across the field and that all women unite as we have a common thread as mothers, grandmothers or aunties and our leadership role within our family and communities,” she said.
In attendance was Kim Williams, AFL Commissioner, who talked about the importance of seeing men honour women in sport.
“To experience women walking across a footy field with all the men honouring them and standing to attention was a very moving experience and any celebration of women in sport is something to be celebrated and honoured appropriately,” he said.
“It is remarkable that in a regional town you can have such an activist approach to celebrating women and their achievements and treating women with the same sort of respect that men usually get in sport in Australia and that is something to be honoured and highlighted and to have a spotlight that actually radiates that across Australia.”
After the formalities concluded the Unity Cup finally got underway.
Fighting it out for the highly-contested cup was Rumbalara and Congupna Senior Netball and A-grade Football teams.
Both football and netball games were cheered on by family, friends and community supporters as they played with pride, honouring the women in their lives and within their clubs.
In the end, the Rumbalara Senior Netball team defeated Congupna 51-21 winning the Unity Cup in the Netball division. In the football division, Congupna A-grade team defeated Rumbalara with the final score 16.13.109 - 10.11.71 taking out the Unity Cup.
Respect was at the heart of the event and the work and achievement that RFNC is doing demonstrate the value of celebrating women and teaching the next generation respect and inclusion.
Taking an opportunity to reflect and acknowledge the vital role women play every single day in keeping families and communities strong is certainly something to be celebrated.
Lowanna Grant is Wiradjuri/Arrente woman and Project Coordinator at NITV. Follow @LowannaGrant