Four main themes emerged during the FGDs as women talked about their health before and after they began to play soccer: pain, fatigue, stress, and non-communicable disease (NCD) risk. These themes emerged in how the women described soccer’s effect on their ability to undertake daily responsibilities for household production and to meet their husbands’ expectations of them as wives and helpmates (see Figure 1
). Women used the terms “soccer” and “football” interchangeably throughout their discussions.
3.2.1. “I Can Feel the Difference, No More Back Pains” (KIW1-R2)
Women reported that before joining the soccer team they had been “having body aches” (GOW1-R4), “a lot of pain in my thighs” (JIW2-R3), and “a lot of back pains, even bending and turning was a problem” (KIW1-R2). Many viewed soccer as a way to reduce pain: “we were told it was best to go stretch in the field”. When women first joined, they found it was painful, commenting that
When I started playing football, I used to feel pain in my leg, but when I continued playing I am grateful that I stopped feeling the pain. I had waist complications, my husband would complain every time when I am not good in bed. When, however, I continued playing football, I am grateful, he does not complain any more.
Start-up pains aside, women described how playing soccer had eliminated their regular pain and how this, in turn, had made their chores easier and faster to do.
Before I could not even turn in bed when I am sleeping. When I go to fetch water, I would come back with back pains but when I started this exercise, even if you tell me to go fetch ten buckets I do not see a problem. Even my husband says that since I started playing soccer, I finish all my work fast.
Women talked often about the pain they felt as they went about their daily lives both in terms of their chores and their intimate relations. After they joined and adjusted to playing soccer, the pain went away; chores became easier and could be completed more quickly, and sexual relations with their partners improved.
3.2.2. “I No Longer Feel Sleepy Because Playing Gave Me Strength.” (MAW1-R7)
Women spoke frequently about soccer increasing their ability to accomplish their tasks, describing how they went from being tired to feeling energized, strong, “light”, and younger. Often women characterized the change in their energy levels in terms of a new ability to complete domestic tasks without tiring, observing that they now were able to “walk to and from the market” (MPW2-R1), “take the goats to eat” (JUW1-R6), or “fetch water to do laundry” (JIW12-R1).
Other women spoke of their increased energy in terms of having become strong:
Having joined the team, I feel strong and able to do my work much more easily. I used to sleep all the time and now I can do my work. For example, ploughing my gardens, milking cows, and fetching firewood without getting tired easily. Even when walking I feel good.
Women also described their transformation from feeling tired to being strong, a trait they perceived as one belonging to men. If women played with strength, one participant observed, “you will think we are men” (JIW2-R6). This strength made them physically equal to men on the field as well as physically equal at home:
…we play football just the same way [men] do. If it is getting into the field and running, we do the same. We kick the ball just as they do. They compete in tournaments as we do so I think it is just the same. Secondly when I leave the field and go home, there is no chore that I cannot do, so we are the same.
Women further described their newfound strength and energy using metaphors of lightness and youth. Women referred to their bodies as becoming “lighter” as a way to indicate more energy and newfound agility. As one woman put it,
Before I started playing soccer, my body was quite heavy. I would get tired from walking very short distances. It is as though I was very old. I was not even able to do some house chores because I would get tired very fast. But after I joined, I felt my body was lighter. Even if I wake up at four in the morning and sleep at 11 at night my body can handle it. Playing soccer has really helped us to be quick; there is no work we can say we are unable to do.
Additionally, women frequently remarked that having more energy and less fatigue made them feel and look young again, expressed in comments such as “when you see me playing in the field, you would think I am a young girl but I’m old” (GOW2-R10).
When you play football, you do not age. We even went to play somewhere to compete, and some of us here were referred to as girls. The truth is that some have three or four children.
Before joining a team, women reported that they had limited energy for their chores, tired easily, and, on occasion, displeased their husbands. Now they had vitality, were proud of their abilities to do chores, glad that their husbands were happy, and pleased to be seen as “young women”. Women saw a direct, causal relationship between soccer and this new energy, strength, and youthfulness.
3.2.3. “It Has Helped Us Because a Woman Leaves Her Home with a Lot in Her Head but When She Mixes with the Others, the Stress Goes Away.” (LUW2-R4)
Women spoke frequently about their worries at home. They shared that, before joining the soccer league, worries had accumulated, a problem that was alleviated by soccer:
When you stay at home, you have a lot of thoughts. When you fight with your husband, you become so stressed. If you do not have anything to do, you start thinking about the fight you had with your husband and as a result you become more stressed. But when you get to the field and play with your friends, you forget all that. Staying at home you become stressed because you are idle, but when you are playing you become like a small child and you have fun.
Soccer was widely seen as a release from daily stressors, whether it was fighting with one’s husband or “having thoughts about what my children will eat” (LUW2-R7). Even when women arrived at practice with lots of worries, these “thoughts disappear” (GOW1-R4) and “all the anger goes away” (MGW2-R9) when they reached the pitch. For some women, soccer made the worries abate entirely, so that they returned home without stress.
I used to have a lot of stress, but when I go play, I come back happy, and the thoughts are gone.
Although some women acknowledged that soccer provided only a temporary respite from stressful events, (“thoughts at home will never end” GOW1-R9), being part of the league helped women manage their daily stressors.
3.2.4. “Exercising Has Improved My Health. I No Longer Fall Ill with Common Diseases.” (MGW1-R7)
In the FGDs, women shared their various health concerns, the majority of which involved hypertension, headaches, sleeplessness, and being overweight. Women reported that soccer alleviated many of these concerns:
I will also add to that. For me I would lack sleep at times. I do not know if it was stress or what it may have been. I had to take Piriton [an analgesic] or paracetamol [acetaminophen], but now since I started ball, I don’t take medicine. When I go to sleep, I sleep as though I have taken Piriton. I mean it is Piriton. Let’s say it is like medicine now [laughter].
Women’s weight was a common theme in all of the FGDs and a number of them mentioned that the doctors at the clinics had advised them to lose weight. Soccer provided them with the means to do this:
High blood pressure was a major problem. The doctor used to encourage me to lose weight. I never used to eat a lot but the weight was constant. Since I joined the soccer team, my body has become more active and more fit. My pressure has decreased. I do not take the medicine anymore.
Playing soccer was generally viewed as a way to “help those with big bodies” (KIW1-R10), making women more fit both on and off the soccer pitch, and reducing the frequency of “mild illnesses” (JUW1-R3) and their need to take medication.