Great news from the national netball team, She Cranes, who qualified for next year’s Netball World Cup in Sydney, Australia. It is the first time Uganda has reached the finals since 1979; netball being one of a handful of sports which have made it to elite level – having won the Six Nations Cup in Singapore last year. Interestingly, the ‘national sport’ (football) has never smelled a whiff of success beyond East Africa.
Any Ugandan with an ounce of feeling for the motherland, with its dramatic history and everyday microaggressions, is proud of such representation on the world stage. But if you are remotely vested in issues related to local sports, then you know that this achievement is remarkable beyond the obvious. You know that any victories celebrated by Ugandans are largely thanks to the effort and passion of individual sportswomen/men, with minimal contribution from the government.
Our representatives endure unfathomable humiliations in the pursuit of their dreams and to raise our flag. Lack of adequate sports facilities is one thing, understandable rather unfortunately, considering that we grapple with critical infrastructure such as hospitals and classrooms. Yet even basics like equipment, footwear, uniforms, and even drinking water are a luxury often footed by the enthusiastic youth. We heard of these shenanigans at the London Olympics where the team lacked shoes, contrary to word that “officials” had received them from the official kit sponsor. Similar drama played out at the recent Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. It is when welcoming medal-clad victors at the airport or parliament, and at events organised by international bodies, that government gets most actively involved.
Amongst the She Cranes, members are likely to be full-time employees or students, job-seekers, mothers, caregivers, wives; holders of different permutations of responsibilities away from the field. That they were able to qualify without losing a single game (leaving Zambia, Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia, and Zimbabwe in their wake), despite being encumbered with logistical issues, is pretty impressive. These women are champions regardless of the medal count next August.
Now they begin the arduous task of mobilizing for airfare, accommodation etc. And that’s beside fitness and skill preparation. This was top of agenda last week at a dinner organised in their honour, and to launch Project Sydney 2015 – the committee coordinating activities leading up to the games. The ladies seemed jubilant and energized and optimistic. I felt the same reading the news story. But only until where the team manager begs that in the months ahead, spouses “leave her girls alone” so that none will miss the tournament – alluding to pregnancy.
Which took me back…
One of the major ‘setbacks’ in Uganda’s recent sports history features Dorcus Inzikuru and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The Gazelle of Arua, as she’s fondly known, had done us proud bagging steeplechase gold at both the 2005 World Athletics Championship in Helsinki, and the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games. It was highly anticipated she would deliver a medal in China. Alas, Inzi delivered a baby. Was also unable to pull off the feat. The wrath of the nation’s armchair track-stars flooded like venom. Many using the opportunity to bash women, proclaiming us a thoroughly unreliable lot. To this day some are still pissed about it.
Ultimately, it is a personal matter. Just because a woman is in sports doesn’t mean that we, officials and the cheerleading public, have any right of say or ownership over her body. If she wants to have a baby when she wants it, to hell with Beijing or Sydney.
This applies to women in all areas of commitment really.
No woman owes anyone, nation – spouse – clan, the use of her body or any of its parts.
Sadly, the She Cranes manager’s plea, while it may have (partly) been in jest, goes painfully deep into the reality of women’s autonomy over their bodies in our society. That men have to be “begged” to take one for the team and respect their wives’ desire not to conceive within a given period reveals insights that are extremely problematic at multiple levels. At the lowest, it shows that despite all the hype, men have the final say over women’s bodies; underscoring the powerlessness of women on decisions of sex and reproduction.
The issue isn’t unique to the sports world. Years back I worked on a pitch for a client in the reproductive health sector. We analyzed studies on usage and attitudes toward contraception in rural and urban Uganda. Findings showed that many women don’t use birth control; not that they don’t want or need it, but because they are forbidden. They stealthily seek information and treatments behind the backs of controlling husbands; some suffering physical violence as a deterrent.
This disregard for a woman’s real consent (the absence of it), even in the marital bed, is simply called rape. But apparently, preventing a man from forced sex with his wife is un-African.
Is rape African culture?
In a country where according to recorded cases, 492 women die per month (16 daily) due to complications in pregnancy or childbirth, why don’t women have a say on an issue that puts their lives at risk of disease and death? Why are women dehumanised to this extent; in this Africa where we brag incessantly about heritage and values? Who’s values, anyway?
Is it any wonder that our communities are rife with sexual violence? Or that wife-beating is considered an expression of love? And child marriage defensible?
What future lies ahead when 50% of the population has no autonomy over their own bodies?
This shit has to end if Uganda is to ever achieve its full potential. For starters, we should stop fooling ourselves ‘celebrating’ women if the status quo is maintained where females are not seen as full human-beings with their own hopes, dreams, and rights as individuals, but as uteri and objects for sexual domination. And for the disposable use of the state.
Even for medals.