Women rugby at crossroads in University Games

Nalubega (R) receives her Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. PHOTO/GEORGE KATONGOLE 

What you need to know:

Like most of her peers on the university rugby team, Nalubega multitasks by playing rugby, football and handball. The fifth year student Veterinary Medicine, formerly the chairperson of the Games and Sports Union as well as the sports minister, said most of the players on the rugby team play basketball or netball.

When more than 30 universities converged at Ndejje University to take part in the Eastern Africa University Games that ended in mid-week, there was a gaping hole. The women were publicly left out!

The imbalance started from the obvious case of trimming teams to fit the budgets which badly affected women participation.

Take for instance women football defending champions Uganda Christian University, they won the trophy with just 13 players, one of who was also a high jumper. When the other two got injured in the opening game, it was always a balancing act to have the team push on. No wonder one player collapsed on the pitch out of exhaustion after the final game!

In a macho case for continued dominance of men in sports in Uganda, of the 2,685 athletes, 1,647 were men and only 1,038 were women! There were 86 women officials compared to 273 men officiating at the games.

Actually the sports tutor of Busitema University made a bold move to include a women’s team on the 50-man squad to the games, but it was just a compassionate move.

“We have always been fielding the men’s football team and this time we wanted to bring the women to feel what it means to play at this stage,” he said.

The ladies were indeed new to the stage! Swallowing the highest number of goals, 15 in three games, as they exited in the group stages, the head coach Kenny Kamada said it was a learning process.

At the games, where sweeping the gold medals is a top priority, participation is locked out of the window and many teams only field the women where they feel they can be able to win the medals.

It is only in badminton, swimming and men’s netball that teams had more women players than men.

For rugby, an Olympic sport, everything went south! As if fielding only five teams was not enough, there was no university that entered a women’s team in the tournament. This is not to say that there are no rugby playing teams. Kenya, which has a more competitive stage, has more than five universities with established women rugby teams especially Maseno, Kenyatta and ISIU, among others, yet none had the guts to bring their women for the 7s game.

According to Louis Kisia, the head coach of Strathmore, who won the men’s version, this was a letdown.

“We just need to step up our game. We cannot achieve much as a society if women are left behind in key aspects. But it also goes to the organisers [FEUS] to show more interest in women's involvement,” Kisia said.

The danger in low numbers

A number of sports administrators interviewed for this story highlight disparity in interest in relation to other sports.

Kyambogo University, the 7s rugby silver medallists, have only six women rugby players. According to head coach Ivan Macmot, those girls have to train with the boys.

It is obvious that there just aren't enough players to safely field competitive teams and not enough new players coming into the sports bursary programs.

Macmot says when a team is so low on players, it might lead people to play through pain which could lead to forfeiting games.

When the Federation of Eastern Africa University Sports (FEUS) championship was held in Busitema in April, Makerere emerged winners. But there were only three teams that took part. Makerere, who have more than 18 players in the team played Maseno and Busitema for the gold medal. Kabale University is the other rugby playing university but skipped for financial reasons.

At this year’s event, only Makerere were willing to field a team but ironically they could have ended up playing against themselves. As the lone playing side, the Makerere women rugby players now find themselves at crossroads.

"I think we're at a really important crossroads here where the professionalism of women's rugby is taking off," said Yudaya Nalubega, a player with the university team.

Sports as a tool for education

Women rugby is already taking strong strides at the grassroots level. Apart from the national leagues, the Uganda Rugby Union holds the Regional 7s.

These are interventions aimed at breaking cultural misconceptions about playing sports while encouraging more women to play sports and build their self-esteem.

Kisoro Jaguars and Mbarara Lionesses are some of the new teams that have embraced the idea.

Kisoro Jaguars coach Stuart Muhumuza noted that: “It is very difficult to get women into rugby in the district due to community perception that women are not supposed to be physical or engage in such sport. Community sensitisation is recommended to help in breaking the stigma.”

Paradoxically, young girls who play with them may never get to study at university if women's rugby is not offered a competitive platform at probably the biggest stage in the East African region.

Nalubega notes women rugby is not new in Uganda but argues that it has to systematically be built from primary and secondary schools.

“If we have to grow the sport, it has to start from the bottom,” she said adding, “If bursaries are given out at lower levels, it will motivate more girls to join hoping to get scholarships at university.”

Universities and other degree awarding institutions are the highest centres of learning and if perceptions are to change, they must be part.

Speaking ahead of the Rugby Africa Cup in July 2021, Regina Lunyolo, the women’s representative on the Uganda Rugby Union (URU) Executive Committee said: “We should all continue to push for a level playing field for our female athletes on and off the field to reap the full benefits of women participating in sport especially as a career path. Gender equality and diversity in rugby is possible and it starts with us prioritising women’s rugby.”

But there is a contradiction! There was no school women rugby at the USSSA games until this year when rugby was admitted as a member of the Uganda Secondary Schools Sports Association (USSSA). They played a qualifying tournament in Entebbe where Airforce SS was number one followed by Nkoma and St Catherine, Lira.

In the national finals, 7s and 15s events were held but it was just a formality as Kitala, Airforce and Nkoma, who had qualified, did not have opponents in the Tanzania games. The hope now is that there will be enough teams next year.

There are baby steps already. Entebbe Schools - Airforce, Kitala SS, Entebbe SS; City High, Kololo SS, Bethany, Green Hill, Nkoma SS Mbale, Masaba High and Oxford High, are offering some student player sports bursaries.

Nalubega insists talented girls must have a right to study.

“Let’s emphasise using sports as a tool of promoting education among girls. If I was able to use soccer to study up to university on sports merit, we can use them even in rugby. These kids you see playing the league are good but you wonder why we don’t play at university. We have to look at the gap that connects those kids reaching the university level through scholarships,” Nalubega, who joined rugby as a late bloomer, said.

Taking the bull by the horns

Like most of her peers on the university rugby team, Nalubega multitasks by playing rugby, football and handball. The fifth year student Veterinary Medicine, formerly the chairperson of the Games and Sports Union as well as the sports minister, said most of the players on the rugby team play basketball or netball.

Although she is not sure they multitask because of lack of scholarship opportunities through rugby, she says new frontiers could be explored.

“I have just joined rugby but I see many opportunities in the game. If someone really concentrates, there are numerous opportunities. First of all, if you stand out, people will see you as a woman of character. I think there are more opportunities in women's rugby than even in soccer,” said Nalubega, who joined rugby, while the Makerere University team was preparing for the All Africa University Games that were hosted in Makerere. It was from here that she was scouted.

“I think it is all about the exposure because there is no clear pathway for young women rugby players,” she said.

Currently, the pathway for a girl to get to the national team is through community teams that feed clubs. But the clubs are also countable which limits opportunities.

During her time as a student leader, Nalubega’s star has shone under sports. She was among the pioneers of women rugby at the university.

“I am happy I leave with a women's rugby team in place. It’s not that I have put players that have been in rugby since childhood, but those who came just for the love of the sport. If I was able to put it up as a student leader, then other sports tutors can try to emulate us.”

Nalubega played two games in Ndejje for the women football side before she left to defend her research project but is still gutted by the decision by universities to pull out from the event.

“It was not good news to me but what would I have done? There were no teams to play against!” she said.

Safety concerns

There are safety issues regarding playing rugby. Some university sports tutors think rugby is not safe for women as a reason to give it a blind eye.

“That is the perspective I would like to fight because rugby is like other sports. There are serious injuries even in soccer or basketball. What I know is rugby is all about conditioning. For as long as the team is well prepared and well conditioned, you might even leave a tournament without any serious injury. Let’s move away from that fear,” she said.

Lack of funding

There are 28 age-grade teams that feed into the women's club rugby and senior programmes.

In 2020 and 2021 there was a girls’ age-grade rugby tournament attracting the highest number of girls ever.

"Why we are still struggling in age-grade and women's rugby is not funded. We are creating projects to feed onto the balance of other activities. That is why Jinja recently asked to be included in Kampala and Entebbe programmes," Dorothy Nekesa, the Age grade and development officer at URU, said.

Clubs and NGOs run women rugby activities. One case is Hippos in Jinja, which has the women's side, Ripples and the Junior Team because of sponsorship from Shares.

Because 15s rugby is not an Olympic sport, it does not get Olympic Solidarity funding. Uganda Rugby Union has to rely on a helping hand from World Rugby, its own pockets and donations.

The rugby union essentially funds its programs, with support from the sponsors Nile Special, whose brand resonates more with men. The developmental leagues remain underfunded.

Avengers, for instance, is funded from Beatrice Atim's salary while Thunderbirds get some support from their senior side Pirates, who also have Sailors.

There is another challenge in the title sponsorship under Nile Breweries that caters for women also.

But last season, Hellen Buteme objected to the offer given to the Thunderbirds -- a crate of beer!

The fact that most universities cite lack of funding for trimming teams and leaving out the women, calls for creativity.

Elsewhere, players, who have been denied a chance to play have successfully resorted to a GoFundMe page. Women rugby players at university can be able to raise money to help pay for subscription to tournaments as universities fix the gaps.