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Football's Angel Gabriel foresees Solomons' success

Gabriel believes skills learned when teaching make him more effective in his development role
Gabriel believes skills learned when teaching make him more effective in his development role.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

In soccer-obsessed Solomon Islands, sport for development program Just Play is working for a fairer, more inclusive society. It is also making football dreams come true.

"Two points if a girl scores. One point if a boy scores."

A tall boy who has set himself up near the opponent's goal mouth lets out an audible groan before regaining focus and jumping up and down on the spot.

Gabriel Riotarau grins, knowingly.

He's seen it all before.

"Kids are kids," he says. The Solomon Islands Just Play Football co-ordinator is also a trained teacher, and it shows.

"You need to prepare, you need to be clear in your mind, the primary thing is to bring them the excitement they need."

Goals for girls: modified rules ensure everyone can participate
Goals for girls: modified rules ensure everyone can participate.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

He is right at home here in a dirt quadrangle in Honiara Christian Academy, surrounded by exhilarated primary school children.

"You need to be positive, you must be flexible and you need to have a degree of control."

- Gabriel Riotarau

The ostensibly unfair rule he is enforcing is, in fact, designed to create a level playing field and, perhaps counterintuitively, makes for a better game.

Football is a microcosm of society and something needs to change if girls are to get a fair go.

Principal Ruth Edwards has witnessed significant change in gender attitudes
Principal Ruth Edwards has witnessed significant change in gender attitudes.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"Especially in Melanesian culture, the boys seem to be the boss all the time," explains Principal Ruth Edwards. By creating an incentive to give the girls a kick, the boys see value in including them.

"We've put in the concept of gender balance. It takes quite a bit of pulling with the boys. But now I've seen this correction. They mingle around together, they show respect for each other and they know their rights."

- Ruth Edwards

Gender equality is one of four key aims of the Australian Aid-funded Just Play sport for development program, along with greater inclusion of those living with disability, child protection and combatting non-communicable diseases by promoting a healthier and more active lifestyle.

It is fashioned from research saying values instilled during primary school years have the best chance of lasting for life. Children across five Solomon Islands provinces are now part of the program.

Gabriel is also a ground announcer for Solomon Islands international matches
Gabriel is also a ground announcer for Solomon Islands international matches.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Gabriel, meantime, is keeping score, and the 'girl goals' are proving decisive. His life in football includes everything from recess referee to ground announcer when Solomon Islands plays an international. He is living a life he could not have dreamed of growing up in Kiu Village in Malaita Province.

"During those days, we didn't have access to facilities, even balls," he says, his obsession with football actively discouraged.

"There was a saying among parents: 'Are you going to eat football?'.

"If you work hard and are committed to it, you can put food on the table but that concept never came to our parents."

- Gabriel Riotarau

Gabriel has since returned to his village with the Just Play program, proving the sport has not been a waste of his time. It was a moment of pride, thanksgiving and vindication.

"I believe there will be a lot more 'Gabriels' because of access to facilities and programs," he says of his home village, and remote areas everywhere.

"Not only that, we are raising the youth to be good citizens of this country. It is our paramount motive."

Ruth agrees.

"I know for sure, there will be a change from the ages before us," she says, looking out her office door onto the playground.

"I'm looking forward to have a great change in our communities, their families and our country."

Once included, girls thrive on the pitch
Once included, girls thrive on the pitch.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

On the rough, gravel playground pitch, a boy threads a spectacular pass between defenders, delivering the ball to a female teammate, who promptly thumps the ball between the witch's hats for a double-value goal.

Boys and girls leap as one in celebration. And suddenly, no one is whingeing about giving girls a go.

This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnership funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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