Rugby is a very rare sport in Iran, and it’s even rarer for women and children. But a NGO working with girls from rough neighbourhoods has found that the sport is boosting their self-esteem in ways they hadn’t predicted.

The NGO is Imam Ali, which works with poor families in cities across Iran. Five months ago, it launched a rugby team for girls under 14 in Malek Abad, a crime-ridden neighbourhood of the city of Karaj. Karaj is located 30 kilometres from the capital Tehran.

“These girls have never been coddled, and they don’t give in to fear”

Sara works with the Imam Ali NGO in Karaj.

I actually had never heard of anyone playing rugby in Iran before another volunteer told us that she played on an adult’s women's team. She thought it might interest the girls we work with. So we researched the sport, and realized that the children’s version didn’t pose any particular safety or health risks for the girls.

When we began our training, we quickly realized that the girls loved it. The simplified rules of children’s rugby make it easier for them to learn than volleyball or even football, which are the other two sports we teach kids in Malek Abad. They learned so fast we could hardly believe it, and soon they were playing against some of the handful of girls’ teams from other cities in Iran and preparing for the national competition [Editor’s Note: 2015 will be the national junior rugby competition’s third year. Last year, five girls’ team participated]. The other coaches were shocked to see how well they played after such a short period of training.

“None of them have official documents, which means they were never able to go to school”

But they all have a common problem: none of them have official documents. This is a rare problem, but could be due to a variety of reasons. Perhaps the father is foreign, maybe he’s Afghan, not Iranian, and thus couldn’t obtain Iranian papers for his child. Perhaps the child was born out of wedlock, or from parents who never officially registered their marriage, which can lead to similar complications. In any case, without papers, they were not able to go to school. So we offer them various classes, both the sports classes and academic ones.

These are girls with very little self-confidence. Society has always ignored them, and all their life they have heard “You can’t do this, you’ll never be able to do that”. And – especially for those who are street vendors – they have the mentality that they must fend for themselves all alone, and be suspicious of others. But rugby really has changed this. We see that they have become more confident, that their anger levels have gone down, that they’ve learned to trust each other and cooperate. And this newfound assurance is reflected in their performance in the academic classes we offer, where they’re improving rapidly.

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Ershad Alijani (@ErshadAlijani)