Human rights group calls for end to 'abusive' sex testing of female athletes

South Africa's Caster Semenya has long fought against World Athletics regulations. Source: AAP

Human Rights Watch says women are being targeted and harmed by regulations which are based on "arbitrary definitions of femininity and racial stereotypes".

Female athletes from the so-called 'Global South' are being disproportionately targeted, "abused and harmed" under sex testing regulations, with some women pressured to undergo medically-unnecessary interventions or be forced out of competition, Human Rights Watch says.

A new report by the organisation documents the experiences of more than a dozen female athletes who were affected by the global regulations, which it says are based on arbitrary definitions of femininity and racial stereotypes.

HRW found the regulations encouraged discrimination and surveillance of women, and led to physical and psychological injury and economic hardship.

Athlete rights advocate and report researcher Payoshni Mitra said World Athletics, the sport’s governing body, had targeted and demeaned women from the Global South for decades, and treated those with high testosterone as “less than human”.

“Modern sport should adapt itself to support inclusion and non-discrimination rather than perpetuate exclusion and discrimination,” Ms Mitra said in a statement.

The term 'Global South' is used by the World Bank and other organisations to broadly refer to the regions of Latin America, Asia, Africa and Oceania. 

HRW is calling for World Athletics to immediately rescind the regulations.

The rights organisation says officials subject all female athletes’ bodies to public scrutiny, to identify those with variations in their sex characteristics that cause higher-than-usual natural testosterone levels.

It claims they deny those women the right to participate as women in running events between 400 metres and 1.6 kilometres (one mile), unless they submit to invasive testing and medically unnecessary procedures.

Women from the Global South - including runners such as India’s Dutee Chand and Caster Semenya from South Africa - have been disproportionately harmed.

“There is no scientific consensus that women with naturally higher testosterone have a performance advantage in athletics,” a release from HRW said.

“Despite a wide range of testosterone levels among men, there have never been analogous regulations.”

The impact of such regulations extends beyond sport, HRW says, with success in athletics delivering economic stability for women through scholarships, access to housing and food.

In one example, the report says Ugandan middle-distance runner Annet Negesa had a painful recovery and never regained her fitness levels after being taken in for a “simple” surgery, described as being like an injection, in 2012.

She had been told she could not attend the London Olympics during the final stages of her preparation for the games.

The report says Ms Negesa's university scholarship was cancelled in 2013, and by 2016 her international manager had stopped contacting her. She eventually sought and received asylum in Germany.

Uganda's Annet Negesa (left) and Kenya's Eunice Jepkoech Sum compete at the International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships in 2011.
Uganda's Annet Negesa (left) and Kenya's Eunice Jepkoech Sum compete at the International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships in 2011.

Caster Semenya’s lawyers, meanwhile, last month confirmed she would take her fight with World Athletics to the European Court of Human Rights.

The double Olympic 800-metre champion previously lost an appeal to the Court of Arbitration of Sport and another plea to the Swiss Federal Tribunal.

“We remain hopeful that World Athletics will see the error it has made and reverse the prohibitive rules which restrict Ms Semenya from competing,” her lawyer Greg Nott said in a media release in November.

World Athletics has consistently said that the regulations are aimed at creating a level playing field for all athletes.

Athletics South Africa insists Ms Semenya is still part of their team for the Tokyo Olympic Games next year, though over what distance remains to be seen. She has also been competing in the 200-metre sprint, which falls outside the World Athletics regulations.

In a statement to SBS News, World Athletics said the report was written by "advocates for one side of the argument".

"We remain committed to fairness for women in sport and reject the allegation that biological limits are based on race or gender stereotypes," the statement said. "On the contrary, they provide an objective and scientific measure to define the category, and are a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of attaining what both the Court of Arbitration for Sport and the Swiss Federation Tribunal agreed was a legitimate objective, namely preserving fair and meaningful competition in the female category. 

"In terms of Human Rights Watch’s other recommendations, published today, World Athletics president Sebastian Coe committed to the establishment of a Human Rights Working Group at the World Athletics 2019 Congress.

"This Working Group, made up of members from all regions, is tasked with developing a human rights framework for the organisation to be presented to the World Athletics Congress in 2021.

"The Working Group is supported by the Centre for Sport and Human Rights and Shift. Human Rights Watch is well aware of this ongoing work as it took part in the most recent meetings of the Working Group.”

With additional reporting by Reuters.

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