Equal Pay For BJJ – Dominyka Obelenyte (Interview)

Original text written by Mayara Munhos.

I don’t want to extend a lot on the subject “equal pay between men and women”, because I have already written a text about it. But just to start, I’ll go into the subject. Women definetely receive less awards than men in sports. Let’s look at some history: before we had very few women in jiu jitsu. Many championships didn’t have a category for females. Later, as more women began to appear, there would be one female category only. A lot has changed as today we see categories for women subdivided by rank, weight and age. Thus we can see: yes! – we have an evolution. However, we still have a lot to fight for. 

Black belt Dominyka Obelenyte created the movement called “Equal Pay For BJJ”, because, as she said:

“It’s no use just to complain and meanwhile not fight to make it happen.”

Introducing Dominyka: she is a black belt of 21 years old, born in Lithuania and received her black belt from Marcelo Garcia. Being only 14 years old, Dominyka won her first World title in an adult division, and that’s where her career began to take off.

Dominyka Obelenyte x Mackenzie Dern at the IBJJF European Championship 2015. Picture by Kinya Hashimoto.

Taking advantage of her visibility in sport as a black belt and World Champion, she decided to create the movement “Equal Pay For BJJ”, and that is the subject of my interview with her. Dominyka told me she began to plan the movement in April 2015, after having attended the IBJJF New York Pro. This tournament had different prize money for men and women.

“People told me to stop complaining and start fighting against this discrepancy.”

From there, she went on to make this issue more public on social media. Her intention was to show other women that we should all fight for it. And that together, they could define a few steps of the path to be followed.

“I asked for advice and help from other BJJ Fighters. Someone suggested the cause to be called “Equal Pay For BJJ”. The movement took off, and after that I created the Facebook group “Support Women’s BJJ“. Here I first started to publicly express my opinion about the payment discrepancies in competitive jiu jitsu. I used it as a means to bring awareness to the cause and brainstorm with the ladies who were supportive of it.”

After that, the movement began to take shape and Dominyka launched a petition (which is no longer active). Today, the Facebook group has more than 1.600 members – men and women – and has gained support from multiple places in the world.

I asked Dominyka if she had any specific sponsorship for the movement.

“The movement has produced a lot of moral support for sure. I constantly have organizations reaching out to me to help advertise the tournaments they host that provide equal cash prizes to both male and female competitors. I don’t really have concrete sponsors that have undertaken the cause as its own, but my sponsor Digitsu sponsored the creation of the Equal Pay t-shirts and has continued to advertise the cause on my behalf.”

And for those who think the movement has died down – you are mistaken. Dominyka stated that she is still having discussions with women from all over the world to find solutions about what to do. Unfortunately, part of her time is taken up by a full-time study, but the messages continues to be passed on.

Black belt women at the IBJJF Pan Ams 2015. Picture by Jiu Jitsu Times.

“I have friends that are taking steps to pass the message along themselves – either through podcasts, websites or some other outlet. Being a full-time college student, I haven’t had much time to organize events on behalf of the cause, such as Women’s Only tournaments, as some have suggested.”

I asked Dominyka if she expected the project to become so big. According to her, she got more people than she expected, and the cause has many ongoing discussions.

“There are several Reddit posts available that debate this issue heatedly, and although I don’t agree with some of the points made, I am extremely happy there is a conversation surrounding equal pay.”

Dominyka told me that many people approach her in tournaments and seminars, thanking her for her work.

“I raised my voice to get the awareness of these issues. It’s an amazing feeling to be approached by a complete stranger, who somehow benefited from the cause.”

I’m sure a lot of people are benefiting around the world. Another important thing is that the message gets to the tournament organizers. Since – in most cases – the justification of a lower payment for women is attributed to the lower amount of registrations in the female divisions, compared to the male divisions. This argument is completely flawed, according to Dominyka. She agrees that we have fewer women involved in jiu jitsu compared to men, but the growth of women is significant.

Dominyka Obelenyte – 2x double gold black belt World Champion.

“More and more women are not only taking up the sport in their local gyms, but tournament registrations have increased exponentially over the past ten years. This only means that women’s jiu jitsu is moving forward, and not stagnating.

 

Unfortunately, most tournaments don’t provide money based on how many registrations are accumulated. Given this fact, and the fact that the IBJJF New York Pro offers 10x the cash prizes to men as compared to women, I would say the registration argument doesn’t have much merit. If the amount of competitors to sign up mirrored the prize money, I would deem it a fair action, one that would likely encourage more women to sign up. The problem with offering female competitors such a small purse, is that it basically undermines their skill and importance in the competitive sphere. It will discourage anyone from signing up.”

Dominyka is happy she created “Equal Pay For BJJ”, and that now people are discussing the subject.

“I think without someone to really acknowledge the difference and why it wasn’t okay, most of the jiu jitsu world would’ve continued on as if nothing was wrong. The conversation had to begin somewhere, and I’m happy with my decision to do so.”

Whether anything has already changed? You could say that. In January last year, the IBJJF has increased the value of the awards for the top three finishers in the annual rankings. The values are now $15.000 for number one, $4.000 for number two and $1.000 for number three. And for the first time, the value is equal between genders.

We can’t be quiet, and must do our part. “Equal Pay For BJJ” is a great movement, responsible for making a lot of people question old-fashioned practice, and making a change. May we all have great trainings and more and more equal rights now, and in the future.

Mayara Munhos is a jiu jitsu purple belt and writer for ESPNW Brazil. Check out more of her work (in Portuguese) here

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