Meet the Match

A Ugandan Sports Leader Runs the Race for Women

When it came to sports as a girl, Agnes Baluka Masajja was a natural. In school, she played netball, soccer, and ran track and field. All the students knew that when it came time for the 400-meter sprint, Agnes was going to take home the medal.

But, as is the reality for many girls in Uganda, there came a point when Agnes’ father pushed her to focus on academics and leave the sports world behind.

She didn’t listen.

“I would have to hide when I ran so he wouldn’t find out,” Agnes laughs. “I would avoid any national competitions or races where there’d be media coverage because I didn’t want to get in trouble. By the time I got to university, I told my dad, ‘This is my career. This is my destiny.’ So he couldn’t refuse me anymore.”

Contrary to what her father believed, sports only improved Agnes’ performance in the classroom. Raised in the eastern Ugandan city of Tororo, she attended Makarere University, where she received a scholarship to study sports science. She then earned a master’s degree in the same subject from Ndejje University in 2014. Now, Agnes is writing her dissertation, “A Gender Perspective of Leadership in Sports Organizations in Uganda,” for her Ph.D. in gender issues in sports at Makarere.

“What sports has done for me I feel it can do for girls throughout Uganda,” Agnes says. “If you go to the hospital when you’re sick, what do they say? Go for a walk, a run, or a swim. You need to take care of your physical body. But with sports we can also talk about other issues. Sports becomes a platform for a bigger conversation.”

The issues Agnes refers to are the many challenges facing Ugandan women: early marriage and pregnancy, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, poverty, and lack of access to adequate education. According to a Ugandan government survey from 2011, 40 percent of women must ask their husbands permission before leaving their homes. More than half of women have experienced physical or sexual violence.

Far more widespread, however, is the mindset that men and women are inherently different, and sports falls within the natural domain of men and not women. For Agnes, the expectations placed on her by her father were not the same for her brothers, who were able to play soccer freely. Generally, Ugandan girls are tasked with helping their mothers with cooking, housework and other domestic duties. If they are able to continue with sports through their school years, there have been cases of sexual harassment, with male coaches taking advantage of female athletes. This has reinforced this idea of keeping women away from sports, especially those such as athletics and swimming where dress codes are adverse to traditional Ugandan culture.

Agnes’ story, however, is evidence that Ugandan women can excel in the world of sports. For the past decade, she has thrived in roles as a coach, administrator, and executive. Currently, she is the sports tutor for Busitema University. In this position, Agnes coordinates and supervises the university’s 16 sports programs. For now, only five of these programs are available to women, which drives her to create more opportunities in the future.

On top of her work with the university, Agnes is the head of the education commission for the Association of Uganda University Sports. She organizes national and international tournaments, coaching workshops for sports trainers and tutors, as well as larger seminars and conferences across Uganda. As a former track and field athlete herself, she also coached the country’s athletics delegation for the 2015 World University Games in South Korea, and will do the same for the 2017 competition in Taipei.

“At work, I’ve earned the nickname ‘globetrotter,’” Agnes says. “I’ve been to South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, South Korea, England and many other countries. It opens your eyes when you can travel the world because of sports. Our girls, most of them have not traveled before, and it’s overwhelming. They get very excited.”

By participating in the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, Agnes has learned about U.S. sports business, management, and media concepts to grow athletics participation and support in Uganda. The University of Connecticut has a strong history as one of the dominant forces in American university sports, with 21 national championships across its sports teams—including 15 women’s basketball championships. Laura Burton, associate professor of sport management, and Jennifer McGarry, department head for educational leadership, are both experts in gender issues in sport, especially those for marginalized ethnic and socio-economic groups. Their long-time leadership experience, and familiarity with university sports systems, are connected directly with Agnes and her goals for using education and sports to empower women in Uganda.

Mentor Matches