Like in most parts of the world, rugby in Rwanda is male-dominated. As a matter of fact, hardly do we hear or see a local ladies tournament, league or the national team in any competition.
In today’s issue, Saturday Sportprofiles Ernestine Ibemaso, whose CV is mostly centered around being a female rugby player, qualified coach, referee, and founder of more than one rugby club.
Though most ladies shy away from the contact sport mainly due to the fear of physical risks and injuries they associate with rugby, and the social risk that they may look masculine, Ibemaso disagrees with that notion and has devoted her time to promoting women rugby in Rwanda.
She believes that, “There are aches, knocks, and bruises in rugby, just like in any other sport.”
Who is Ernestine Ibemaso?
Born on December 21, 1990 in Nyamagabe District, to Ernest Bayisabe and Leocadia Uwimana, Ibemaso is the second born in a family of seven.
She completed her secondary school studies from GS Cyanika in Gicumbi District and briefly enrolled to University of Rwanda’s College of Education in 2012 before moving to Kampala International University on a sports scholarship where she majored in Art Education.
She picked interest in rugby while in her first year of secondary school at GS Shyogwe in Muhanga District. Prior to taking up rugby, she had tried Kung Fu and Karate.
In 2007, while juggling studies and trying to adapt in the new sport, Ibemaso says she sought help from Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF) Tiger Force battalion 2, then based in Nyamagabe, to form a small rugby team in her home village, and that was only the beginning.
“The team participated in different youth competitions, and I was very happy that I was pulling children from isolation to engage in sports,” Ibemaso told this publication, adding she was in early stages assisted by Jean de la Paix Hakizimana, the former Technical Director of Rwanda Rugby Federation.
In 2008, Ibemaso was signed by Lion de Fer Rugby Club, the same year that she received her maiden call-up in the national team.
Despite being one of the best female rugby players in the country at the time, and arguably the best at her position as a hooker, it was not until 2010 that Ibemaso played her first international competition, a 7s tournament in Botswana.
“The turning point for me as a player came in 2010 when we played the Africa Women Rugby Championship in Botswana. We managed to defeat Malawi, and a recorded a draw with the hosts Botswana before losing to South Africa and Mauritius,” she vividly remembers.
At the club level, Ibemeso played countless matches for Lion de Fer on domestic scene and at the same pursuing refereeing and coaching courses.
In 2015, Ibemaso seized an opportunity to work as a fitness trainer in Gastibo District before moving to Musanze District the following year.
Rugby – tool to advance girl education
After 12 months at her job as a fitness trainer in Musanze, the 28-year old decided to establish Gorilla Girls Rugby Academy in the same district in 2017, an initiative that started with 32 children – 16 from primary school and 16 more from secondary school.
She says the process to register for legal status from Rwanda Governance Board is already underway.
“Rugby is a sport that has the power to engage young girls and women in activities that promote healthy lifestyles, as well as boosting their confidence and self-esteem. At the same time, I use it as a tool to keep the girls in school.
The biggest area of moral growth is in our youngest demographic,” she noted.
Ibemaso grieves that women rugby is significantly given less attention, less media converge and less investment than their male counterparts.
Currently, there is only one female rugby team in the country, Lion de Fer, and Ibemaso recommends that – for the chain to be broken – each men’s rugby club should also have a female team in order to put in place a women’s rugby league.
As a member of the local arbitration committee, Ibemaso thinks there should be a female representative on the federation’s executive committee specifically to fight for women rugby.