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Australia is well recognised for its sporting culture and passion, and nobody embodies this more than Noeleen Dix.
A former Australian netball player, President of Netball Australia and now General Manager of Masters Swimming, Dix has spent her life absorbed in sport and fitness. But her passion for sport (and netball in particular) extends further than a love of competition. Dix believes wholeheartedly in the power of belonging to a team and sees this as a potent antidote to feelings of despair and hopelessness.
That’s why, in 2015, Netball Australia, launched the Confident Girls Foundation with Dix as the inaugural Chair. A program designed “to help disadvantaged women and girls achieve their full potential both on and off the court”, Dix tells me.
The foundation works with the grassroots community to run netball programs for vulnerable Australian girls; subsidising development pathways, supporting local clubs, providing grants to program delivery partners and supplying free equipment. So far, close to 20,000 girls across Australia have partaken in a community program initiated by the foundation.
It’s unsurprising then, that since launching CGF has experienced an overwhelmingly positive response from participants and those involved. It’s an initiative that can change lives, but securing support is not easy given women’s sport has historically been classed as secondary.
“Women’s sport does not have the financial stability through annual TV rights packages, afforded to men’s football and cricket codes in Australia,” explains Dix. “But that has not stopped Netball providing a well governed, organised and accessible sporting opportunity for girls and women. The Confident Girls Foundation is another example of Netball taking the lead on behalf of females.”
Dix adds that in disadvantaged communities across Australia, there are already a number of programs, like theirs, catering solely for boys. “We provide some gender equity opportunities to those communities,” says Dix.
Currently in Australia, more boys (70%) than girls (56%) participate in sports., For Dix, netball is critical because it’s “a game designed by women specifically for girls and women to play. It’s the perfect vehicle to drive opportunity and equality,” she says.
“Sport needs to be inclusive, and should reach out to indigenous, vulnerable, marginalised, disabled, culturally & linguistically diverse communities. The Foundation is doing this on behalf of Netball Australia.“
Netball also crosses boundaries in Australia. It’s played everywhere and incorporated into most PE curriculums. “Luckily Netball has a footprint in every community in Australia, so it’s imperative that opportunities are encouraged for everyone to participate and gain the benefits of a team game,” says Dix.
For young women already experiencing hardship, and now in their most tumultuous years, sport is an invaluable outlet. “It contributes to higher levels of self-esteem and self-worth,” Dix explains. As well as improving mental and physical health, providing a sense of belonging and developing leadership skills. It also links girls up with a number of mentors and role models who serve to propel them forward. Dix acknowledges the impact this has had on her life and (very full) career.
“Mentors and role models are incredibly important for every single person,” she says. “Whether you know it or not, your life skills are influenced by the people around you and the advice that you seek and receive.”
For some of the girls coming through the foundation, and particularly those who lack stability in their lives, these relationships have the capacity to redefine their pathways into adulthood.