Back in 2017 Bronwyn Jones told us about how women's rugby was developing a foothold in Kosovo. Six years - and one pandemic – later we have asked Bronwyn to update us on the state of the game in Europe's newest country -
I was speaking to a head teacher at a high school in Kosovo about recruiting their female students to play rugby for our Revolution Rugby project. He said it’s a great idea and then he asked me, “Now what will you do for the boys?”
“Nothing,” I said.
Women’s rugby in Kosovo - always living on a slightly precarious edge - had a bumpy return post-pandemic. Only two women were playing rugby last May in the club I started, Balkan Lynx, the first women’s club in Kosovo, and they were playing with teenage and pre-teen boys.
A group of women - including past players for the Lynx - and I were not happy with how a club that once boasted 35 members had dwindled so badly and that women’s rugby hadn’t moved forward at all in Kosovo. So last summer while helping to revive the Lynx, I began thinking about a fundamental strategy change.
* More grassroots women’s clubs that champion diversity and reach out to women from all communities.
* With more clubs we need women’s focussed tournaments, events and coaching that specifically focussed on women’s needs and created more exposure for women.
* To train local women how to coach and administer rugby clubs in the Kosovo context.
* To create a culture of genuine respect and collegiality.
This became Revolution Rugby. A project supported and sponsored by the Assist Kosovo NGO with cooperation from Centar Manjinske Zajednice to build and support grassroots women’s rugby in Kosovo. Both NGOs are dedicated to gender empowerment.
Kosovo is a deeply patriarchal society where nearly 80% of women do not work and only 8% participate in sports, according to the Kosovo Olympic Committee. 60% of rape and sexual assault evidence at the Institute of Forensic Science concerns female victims between the ages of 11-16. Street harassment is rife and aggressive particularly against young women.
Sport and rugby, especially, is a vital tool to help young women. I’ve seen it work myself when women create a space of their own, forge friendships and work together overcoming ethnic differences.
However, many development organizations do not use sport to mobilize youth and women. Finding money is difficult and we have had to work hard to secure funding sources.
Further, rugby is still confused with American Football and the one ethnic group that has a tradition of rugby - Serbs - will not participate with Albanians because of a peak in tensions right now. Many Kosovo Serbs have withdrawn from any activity that might be perceived as acceptance of the current Kosovo government. So even on a grassroots level we have not been able to successfully start clubs in that community. Therefore, we’ve had to work harder to reach out to other minorities, while keeping the door open to Serbian women as well.
Minority outreach isn’t just some pollyanna, kumbaya, reconciliation project. Last year, about 30,000 people left Kosovo in a country of about 1.7 million people and that number looks to grow. If rugby is to become a viable sport in Kosovo it needs to include everyone.
I’m continually told by men - but often women as well - that women are too delicate or sensitive for rugby in Kosovo. Or there is no league, no interest, no TV coverage and no support. Although it is changing the attitude toward women in sports remains woefully regressive. This despite the success that Kosovo women have had on an Olympic level with Judo.
I was also told that feminism and rugby shouldn't mix and that sport is not about politics or my “wokeness”. But this is merely a way of shunting the specific issues that women have here away and blaming them for not coming up with investment and specific programs to meet their needs and make the culture of the sport welcoming to all women - not just the ones who don’t give you a headache.
Regardless of these challenges we began Revolution Rugby in October 2022, a women's league and network with two clubs: Mitrovica Dragons and Prishtina Jets with all new players, all locals. We have over 20 registered players. A third club is in the works and that club will be based in a minority community.
Both clubs are multiethnic (and even include refugees) and are coached and administered by women, challenging the notion that sports needs men as coaches or to be in charge. This is rugby for and by women.
There have been many more issues, playing space is a big one. We will need to pay 240 euros a month in pitch fees. 120 euros for each team at 15 euros an hour, twice a week. A third team will increase those costs.
Kit, balls and any other equipment is costly. Rugby balls aren’t sold in Kosovo. So everything is imported.
Because of the poverty in general (Kosovo is the poorest country in Europe with the average salary at 300 euros a month) and the poverty of local women we cannot charge much - or anything - in club fees or for travel. Which makes sports very much the province of the small elites or the fortunate.
But we persist. We have supportive partners in the municipality of Mitrovica, received support from KFC Kosovo and are working on additional corporate sponsorship.
We will be holding our first rugby camp this summer with guest coaches from the region and beyond. This will be the first time that there is an exclusive rugby camp for women in Kosovo. It will also be the first time that a women’s rugby competition is held in Mitrovica.
We also hope to play the annual Burgas Beach Rugby tournament, one of the largest in the region, at the end of July to give our women their first taste of competition and travel.
We also expect to establish the first women’s rugby championship in Kosovo and not just in 7s next season.
For the 2023/24 season we expect that we will be playing across the region and in Kosovo - finances permitting.
We feel that we have made an incredible difference to the growth of the women’s game in Kosovo already and we hope that ambition encourages Kosovo and other countries in the region to invest more in their women’s rugby and become more innovative, rather than tagging women along with men’s tournaments like afterthoughts. Or worse as the half- time show: women playing 7s in between and around a men’s 10s or 15s.
At this point in this region, women’s sports need their own spaces and a chance to create their own cultures.
Balkan rugby - has long been plagued - with infighting. Much of that coming from a lack of resources and poor administration. We hope that, ultimately, Revolution Rugby sets a standard of professionalism in the sport that forces everyone to step up their game.
If you wish to contribute to Revolution Rugby and get one of our commemorative, specially designed postcards (it's hard to send t-shirts from here) contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details