When sportswomen are playing, they exude energy and determination to pull off the best performance. Some women have defied the odds and are earning a living from the sports industry. Everything seems normal yet many, continuously feel like imposters in a ‘men’s world’, where triumph and disaster are inevitable. But have you ever imagined how menstruation affects the performance of female players?
Samiya Ayikoru, a versatile rugby player talked of the silent taboo of menstrual periods that happen monthly for every woman when they hit puberty. She says that many girls dread their periods because of the social stigma associated with menstruation, as well as the lack of services and facilities to help them.
“At times the cramps are too painful. Sometimes I cannot perform to the expectation of the coach. Sometimes, I get mood swings. When my periods are too heavy. I stay home to take my medication,” says the 22-year-old ‘little princess of rugby’, as she is commonly known.
A silent battle
Dorothy Nekesa, the age grade representative at the Uganda Rugby Union says some of the girls can be seen bleeding. Some use cotton clothing.
“Many want to be top athletes but they fail to reach their dream because they lack sanitary pads. These girls are stigmatised and some never come back,” says Nekesa, who has been a national team manager for three years, says..For most of the women menses last between two to seven days.
Pads are expensive
She says that players miss crucial tips and training from coaches during the days they are away, because of their period. Nekesa leads a solidarity group at Kyadondo Rugby Club that troubleshoots such challenges. In this initiative, fans contribute to the purchase of sanitary pads for female players.
“We have fans attached to rugby and we have encouraged them to support these girls. When we make collections, we buy pads and freely distribute them. This is one way of keeping sports women confident. A pack of imported single use sanitary pads (seven pieces) is worth Shs2,500. Most sports women cannot afford it because they are not paid to play,” Ayikoru discloses.
Regina Lunyolo represented Uganda in the national rugby team from 2004 and 2013. She advocates for women through sport. “At times you have that fear and it can happen on match day. It happened to me in Hong Kong and I was only lucky that my first day is not always that bad,” she says.
She says while women are expected to compete with their male counterparts, menstruation remains one of the biggest challenges that they face.
“One of the finest players and a former teammate at Thunderbirds- a female rugby team at Kyadondo Rugby Club, who preferred anonymity, says she struggles with such bad cramps that at times, she is admitted to hospital. She opted to quit for athletics where she would determine her days for training,” says Lunyolo, the director of women rugby in Uganda.
No one would understand
It gets worse when the coach is male. Edgar Lemerigar, the National Sevens coach says at one time, girls refused to undergo a mandatory ice bath. The ice bath is a recovery process that helps drain lactic acid out of the tired muscles.
“There were three girls in the team who deliberately refused to take the bath. I was not happy with them. They insisted that they were sick, yet they had just finished training. My efforts to have them comply were fruitless. But when I talked to the team manager, I learnt that it was that time of the month and I exempted them,” says Lemerigar. Fortunately, the team manager is female. She acts as a confidant for the female players.
A female football player with Kampala University who preferred anonymity says that all staff that manage the university team are men.
“You just talk about it with teammates because no one will understand you,” she says, adding, “When we get to know from our teammate, it is up to us to cover up for her.”
How is managed in football
According to Majidah Nantanda, a legend and the immediate former coach of the Ugandan Women’s National Soccer Team, women footballers are not getting the facilities they require to compete favourably.
As a beneficiary of the Global Sports Mentoring Programme, she has witnessed how professional set-ups are offering user-friendly facilities that are encouraging women and girls to play.
“When I was in the US, I met with their U17 team and they regularly meet to talk about things that concern them, including health. They have someone on the medical team who keeps track of such details. But here, we have no facilities at all and even when I was head coach, we would include such things in the budget and they were never prioritised,” she says.
Nantanda, who retired in 2007 after playing for close to a decade for the national team, was the national under 20 coach from 2009 until 2011 before she was promoted to the senior team. She quit coaching in 2016 due to what she describes as deplorable playing conditions for women, to focus on projects aimed at empowering women.
“At the moment, women players are taken for granted. We need to empower girls to speak up and also obtain all the necessary information.” After years of gathering knowledge, she recommends sports women to use tampons instead of pads because they are lighter and no one would know. However, she is aware that tampons are costly yet most players never get paid to meet such expenses.
Danger it poses
Dr Nelson Mayeku, the head of physiotherapy at Entebbe General Hospital, says menstruation remains a difficult area to research. “Periods come with fatigue, bloating or general lethargy, which are hard to measure.”
But medical research has found that increased levels of oestrogen cause tendons and ligaments to become lax, potentially increasing the risk of injury. Oestrogen is a hormone which repairs and thickens the uterus lining during menstruation.
“It is unclear whether it is because of physiological or psychological factors or a combination of both, but it can lead to knee injuries,” he adds. “We do not want to assume that some use it as an excuse, but it can affect some players’ performance.”
Don’t suffer in silence
Mayeku, who has worked with the national rugby team since 2014 says they do not take chances.
“We try to keep every aspect of our players’ performance in control.”
He encourage players not to suffer in silence. Besides the social support, the physiotherapist carries sanitary pads, just in case one’s periods come earlier than anticipated. But Nekesa says there is need for funding to improve the health of girls in sport.
“I look forward to a day when pads will be distributed freely, just like condoms. For men, sex is a choice. But menstruation is mandatory.”
Side effects of menstruation
The most common side effects include cramps, back pain, headaches, and bloating, fluctuations in strength, metabolism, inflammation, body temperature and injury risk. All these are associated with hormonal fluctuations throughout the cycle. However, menstrual cycle affects females differently.
Exercises during periods
Dr Nelson Mayeku recommends drills that help relieve the pains and maximise performance. “Moderate exercises including jogging, swimming, yoga, sit ups, or cycling significantly reduce the pain.” Mayeku however warns against high-intensity exercises like running. He recommends warm water baths as they help to relax the muscles.
Muscle relaxants such as drotaverine and tolperisone are administered to the athletes to help them manage the pain, even though he is aware of pills that can delay menstruation cycles. Dr Mayeku, however, he does not recommend them because they affect water retention and some contain banned substances, which are considered to be performance enhancing.
When you are in doubt, there is technology to count and remind you of the days. The mostly used period trackers are: Period Tracker, Flo, My Calendar, MIA, Eve, Period Diary and Clue which are available on Android and iPhone.“Periods are a top secret among women because of our cultural setting. But an App gives them flexibility.” He, however, warns that they cannot be used as birth control means.
A booklet on menstrual management was published in 2013 by Network for Water and Sanitation Uganda (NETWAS Uganda, in collaboration with SNV, the Netherlands Development Organisation.
Every year, the world commemorates May 28 as the Menstrual Hygiene Day. The day among other activities, was set aside to break the silence and create awareness about menstruation and enable women reach their full potential.