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It's the only country in the world that calls rugby league its national sport but, for decades, half of Papua New Guinea's population had limited involvement in the 13-a-side code.

In the past few years, however, women have taken on prominent roles in playing, coaching and development, with widespread positive social impacts.

The NRL-run League Bilong Laif program, which uses the popularity of rugby league to improve education outcomes, employs 16 permanent and part-time female development officers who deliver school-based rugby league activities to girls and boys in four provinces.

Many of these development officers are current or former players and coaches, who have witnessed first-hand the growth of the women's game, and its effects on PNG's rugby league landscape.

Although intercity women's matches were popular in the 1980s, provincial women's competitions are a relatively recent innovation. The Port Moresby women's league is now in its fifth season and comprises 11 teams.

NRL League Bilong Laif development officer Cathy Neap won the inaugural Port Moresby women's rugby league premiership with Paga Panthers in 2011, and now coaches the side.

She says the growth of the women's game in the nation's capital has transformed the demographic of rugby league crowds.

"When women started playing they brought their families to games, which increased crowds and gate takings," Neap explains.

"Before that, there wasn't a big crowd at matches, and you'd hardly see females going. But now, the type of people that go to watch has changed. Their attitude has changed. 

"It's much safer for everybody to go and watch now. The ladies have changed the mindset."

Neap's colleague, Dela Audama, says playing rugby league has provided a welcome distraction for women living in settlement areas beset with social problems.

"In the settlements, lots of women go out drinking and hassling people, or they stay at home gambling," she explains. 

"But when they join a rugby league club, the coaches and trainers discipline them and show them the right path to take. 

"Those women who play rugby league know that weekends are game time, so Friday they do their team run, and Saturdays or Sundays are game days, so they stay at home rather than going out drinking."

Rugby league's popularity in PNG makes it a powerful tool to improve the standing of women.

Now that an increasing number of females are involved in the sport, attitudes are changing, Neap says.

"As women have been given the chance to play in the competition itself, it has brought a lot of women out there in the public eye where they can also do the things that men can do, both on-field and off-field, which has gained a lot of respect from the guys."

The League Bilong Laif program, which uses on-field and in-classroom activities designed for girls and boys of all abilities, puts females on an equal footing when it comes to rugby league.

Neap and her colleagues say the schoolgirls they work with are excited to discover that their female "rugby league teachers" are also players. They say many female students seem to gain confidence from participating in League Bilong Laif activities.

At a recent girls' fun day for PNG National Women's Day, a rugby league role reversal saw around 1,000 schoolgirls participate in league activities, watched from the sidelines by their male classmates.

"League Bilong Laif sets the pace for the bigger bodies to see how important females are in our sporting code," Neap says.

Click here for more information on League Bilong Laif

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