Julia King is well known as co-owner of The Kava House Vanuatu with her husband Frank, but her work in local sport has also seen her profile rise.
Having held administrative roles with the Port Vila Women’s Football and Women’s Futsal Leagues, been a player, coach and team member of the Tupuji Imere and Mauriki women’s teams and a team manager for the Vanuatu national women’s team, King is now founder and coordinator of H4F Vanuatu and Chair of Vanuatu Women in Sports. She also sits on the Vanuatu Chamber of Commerce Council representing women.
King said each role has contributed in some way to shaping the person she is today, and she hopes in future the same can be said of the programmes she runs and supports and young women in Vanuatu.
What is it about sport which draws you in?
I enjoy sports, especially football, and the power it has to draw people from different walks of life, different backgrounds, religions, cultures, languages and ethnic groups, together. Most importantly how it immediately establishes a common ground, as if there were no barriers at all. For Vanuatu, there are so many women with different qualifications, linguistic backgrounds, who have been drawn to sports because of what it serves and the causes it promotes, especially in unifying women, promoting healthy lifestyles in a very conservative cultural environment. All women having been through formal education would have experienced some form of sport and the joy it brings . It is that joy that I wish to re-ignite in each female and remind them that it is ok to be able to enjoy sports and be part of a sporting community.
What has helped drive your commitment to do more than just be a passive consumer of sport?
My greatest mission is to help provide programmes and activities for women to continuously participate in sports and promote it. My simple joy is to be able to watch women enjoy the exhilaration of sports and how sports has helped Vanuatu women’s lifestyles and encouraged better healthy living. The challenges faced in the different roles I’ve had have also encouraged me to stay positive and focus on the greater good regardless of the shortfall or lack of support.
What do you see as some of the specific challenges of being a Pacific woman in sport? And a woman from Vanuatu?
Our greatest challenge is the cultural norm that promotes men in a patriarchal system allowing women to think they are not good enough, or it’s not the place to be or not being allowed to play sport. I could easily blame capitalism that gives men the power over women, being the breadwinner for their families. But the tables have turned over the years and women are now rising, starting to become breadwinners as well. There still remains a cultural aspect in Vanuatu society where the chiefs’ nakamals do not give them a chance to speak up. But that’s where sports play an important role to empower them to keep rising and find their place in society.
I believe women are more than capable of achieving anything they set their mind to which is why our core projects involve establishing a database of women and their opinions of sports so we can further develop innovative ways of allowing them to enjoy sports more. One example is the introduction of Period Panties for women to use during menstruation because women in Vanuatu tend to shy away when it’s their time of month and refuse to participate in sporting activities. For the Samoa Games 2019 , we were able to pilot this program for our women athletes. At these games 14 of the 26 medals won by Vanuatu were by women. That is history and a milestone for women in Vanuatu who have come a long way as far as sports and medals are concerned.
How do you see Pacific women in sport as being perceived?
The biggest challenge is culture, but I also think it has developed a false curtain which women can use to hide behind. At the request of many women I designed and launched programmes, H4F and Female Fun Football, to help them to participate and stay physically active. I challenge time management and motivation to focus on themselves and prioritise their goals to be able to achieve a consistent turn out.
What are some of the changes you have witnessed over the years when it comes to how women in sport are perceived?
Women have become more confident and empowered through sports. The women are receiving more recognition for their achievements and it is great to see them being acknowledged. Vanuatu acquired its first ever medal in the Commonwealth Paralympic Games when 20-year-old Friana Kwevira from Ndiundui Village in West Ambae won a bronze medal in Javelin at the 2018 games. That gives a fine example of challenging yourself in your ability to be able to perform, Friana has set a fine example for a one-handed woman who has raised above a lifetime of odds to be the woman she is today. Now mother to two beautiful children, she has set the bar high for women across the country to continue to aspire to be a greater version of themselves.
We are getting there slowly but surely, keeping in mind that opportunities come with challenges, nothing will be handed to us on a silver platter and we have to rise to the occasion and make it count.
What are some of the differences from when you first became involved in sport and today?
There was a time when men would not listen at all to what women have to say believing that our place is in the kitchen and to rear children. That has gradually improved but it has not come easy. There are still men and women who continue to take a traditional approach, but this is also a new era and we only have one life to make it better for our daughters and nieces so I am stepping up and doing what I can to the best of my ability.
Do you have a vision for what you would like to see for women in sport in the Pacific?
Yes, as much as I would like to see more women embrace sports and the wonderful things it does for our lives, I want to appeal to their mindset where they can aspire to be whatever they want to be in life, and much more.
Sport provides a platform for leadership and advocacy and I am honoured to be a vessel of this message however we need a mind shift where women can rally together, stand as one to achieve bigger and greater things for ourselves and moreover, for those who are not so fortunate. This is random but just putting it out there in the universe, I would like to see a sports academy for youths in Vanuatu where we can encourage students who can excel in both sports and education.
How important has it been for you as a mother to see your children involved in sport?
Tremendously important. It gives me so much pleasure to see my children involved in sports, not because I tell them to do it because I am their mother, but because it’s an activity we enjoy together.
In H4F children see me as “mother” because I am on the sidelines from Monday to Thursday, every afternoon, training them on the pitch and I’m there again on Saturday cheering them on in competition. I share their joy in victory and cry with them in their defeat. I ref, coach, drive but most importantly I am their greatest fan when their parents can’t be with them. I have my struggles as a wife, coach, team manager, referee, but if anything, it’s all worth it in the end. I believe in the kids and want them to aspire to greater things in life. I’ve had the joy of seeing two of my U-16 players represent the Vanuatu team in Solomon Islands, one in the U-18 OFC Futsal Championships and a few have graduated to the Mauriki FC first division team.
Nothing gives me greater pleasure to watch them all grow and flourish with great sportsmanship. I have now girls and boys from H4F in U-19 and U-16 National Teams and this is why this programmd is so results driven. My son trialed for the U-16 team and now plays on both the U-16 and U-19. That is a lot for a young athlete and as long as I am there on the sideline cheering them on, everything will be fine.
How do you share the message of the importance of equality with your children and their peers?
With H4F this was my greatest challenge because the programme was created for girls. The boys wanted to play too, which we allowed on the condition that they respect the girls and play WITH them.
In Vanuatu culture this is challenging for both parties because the boys think they are better and the girls can think the boys are better too. I challenge the girls to think they are just as good, stay on the field, find your position with the teams and the boys will have to accept that girls are just as good. You win your place, it will not be a given.
This movement has challenged coaches and teams in Port Vila because their boys wouldn’t play against my teams of boys and girls. I challenge them with this message and most times my teams do not win, but they never have goal-less games. The girls have emerged confident and fearless on the pitch whilst boys have learnt to respect them for their skills on the pitch.
In addition, Vanuatu has a high rate of violence against women, one of the reasons H4F was founded. The rivalry on the pitch channels good energy and allows female and male players to respect each other.
Do you have advice for Pacific women when it comes to breaking down some of the barriers which society has put up?
I am a village girl so I have respect for my elders and seniors. Sports has its place in society and within that is gender equality. Both sport and society give us the authority to perform when we need to, we just work it out and make the best out of it. Most of Vanuatu’s or even the world’s best elite athletes have one common ground, they are supported and loved by their parents. Parents who given their children support and are there at the grand stands do so much more than being present, it is the best support a youth can even get and it will boost their performance in ways no coach can do.
What message do you have for women who struggle in what has traditionally been a male-dominated arena?
Stay focused and think about how sports can help you become a better person.
Sports has become a platform for women in so many ways which have helped boost confidence and morale and women are starting to find their place in society and rising above the “cultural norms”.
When I am faced by challenges , I ask myself how many people I will be affecting by fighting this fight . Most times we lost the smaller fights to win the big battles and we are still fighting to get there – hopefully in this lifetime.
Do you have anything else to add?
I want all women to continue to aspire to be a greater version of themselves. Be the best mother you can be to your children. Believe that your children are getting the best support you can ever give them. You were placed in this world by God to serve a purpose, find that purpose and if need be, use sports to help carry your message. Nothing is too hard if you put your mind to it, believe it and you will achieve it!
Finally, I want to acknowledge the support of my better half, my husband, and our children for continuously standing by me when at times it seems like mum is crazy. I only do what I do because I believe in the greater good!