Crossposted from UN Women.
From starring in billboards and videos to meetings with men and boys across the country, Georgian rugby players are leading advocacy to end violence against women. Public perception is changing, survivors are seeking support, and men and boys are taking a stand against violence.
In December 2010, “unusual” billboards started appearing in the streets of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city. “Let women’s abusers come and scrum with us,” challenged the familiar rugby stars on the billboards. They encouraged women experiencing domestic violence to call the newly established hotline number, which was established by the government with the support of UN Women. The billboards surprised—even shocked—the people of Tbilisi. Violence against women was a taboo topic. Why were rugby players talking about it?
In 2010, when members of the Georgian Rugby Union in discussions with UN Women learned how prevalent domestic violence was in the country, they wanted to be part of the solution. According to a 2009 UNFPA study, in Georgia, every 11th ever-partnered or ever-married woman had experienced physical or sexual violence from their husband or partner . Yet, no one talked about it publicly; over 78 per cent of the population believed that domestic violence was a “family matter” 
In 2012, as one of the first steps of collaboration with UN Women, the Georgian Rugby Union dedicated the international test match between Georgia and Russia to the UN Secretary-General’s Campaign UNiTE to End Violence against Women. Popular rugby players also starred in videos condemning violence against women and girls, which millions of people watched on television and social media.
Next, the players started a series of meetings with young men and boys across Georgia, where they trained them in rugby, and on the principles of equality, mutual respect and support that are the foundation of rugby. They urged and lobbied young men and boys to have zero tolerance to violence against women. To date, 35 meetings have taken place and they are always packed. At least 20 more will be conducted by the end of 2020.
“We love rugby and we have a rugby team, Knights, in Tserovani. We have discussed many issues. Violence is unacceptable, especially violence against women and girls. This is the motto of rugby players, and we too share it,” said 16-year-old Giorgi, who participated in a meeting at the Tserovani IDP settlement this year.
“Everyone loves rugby and respects rugby players in Georgia. That is why, it is important to use the authority and respect we have to help shape the values of the younger generations for a fair and equal environment for all, free from violence,” says Lekso Gugava, member of the Georgian National Rugby Team, “the Lelos.”
The Lelos devote several international matches every year to raise awareness about violence against women and girls. In 2014, they dedicated the match with Japan to UN Women’s HeforShe movement for gender equality. Milton Haig, Chief Coach of the Lelos, champions the cause. “Each and every one of us—the Lelos, the coaches and members of the big rugby family— we are proud to wear t-shirts of this campaign condemning violence against women and girls,” says Haig.
As part of the UN Joint Programme for Gender Equality, funded by the Government of Sweden, the Georgian Rugby Union, in partnership with UN Women, has developed a special manual for rugby coaches. The manual helps them teach the principles of rugby, along with gender equality and zero tolerance of violence against women to young people aged 8 – 15 years in rugby clubs across the country. Rugby coaches have to undergo a mandatory training that includes gender equality and zero tolerance to violence against women.
The public awareness campaigns conducted in partnership with the government, non-governmental organizations and others, such as the rugby players, have finally broken the deafening silence on the issue of violence against women and girls in Georgia. Results are evident, a 2013 UN Women study on the public perceptions of violence against women found that 69 per cent of people believed domestic violence to be a crime. The disclosure of domestic violence cases has dramatically increased in the recent years. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia, it doubled in 2015, while the number of restraining orders issued increased from 227 in 2013 to 2,598 in 2015. More women survivors are accessing shelters and services now.
“I love rugby and my son and I never miss a chance to see the Lelos play,” says Giorgi Duchidze, an ardent fan. “I am proud that our team stands for such values as gender equality and fights violence against women and girls, because athletes have a significant role to play in showing the future generation what is right and what is wrong.”
 UNFPA (2009); National Research on Domestic Violence against Women in Georgia
For more stories, photos and videos on women and sport, see In Focus: Women and Sport.