Barbra Banda, a rising star in women’s football and captain of the Zambian national team, has been declared ineligible for this summer’s Africa Cup of Nations through ‘gender verification’ tests, according to Zambian football authorities and several reports.
Banda, a 22-year-old striker, scored two hat-tricks at the Olympics last summer and excelled for her Chinese club, Shanghai Shengli. But she was mysteriously “unavailable” for Zambia’s Women’s AFCON opener on Sunday due to what the Football Federation of Zambia (FAZ) described as “medical reasons”.
Reports soon emerged that pre-tournament testing had revealed natural testosterone levels that exceeded limits set by governing bodies. Andrew Kamanga, the FAZ president, said in a statement on Wednesday that the rules are those of the African football confederation, CAF, and in line with regulations drawn up by the sport’s world governing body FIFA.
CAF has distanced himself from the absence of Banda, and did not respond to Yahoo Sports’ request for comment. But Kamanga told BBC Sport Africa: “All the players had to undergo gender verification, a requirement of CAF, and unfortunately she did not meet the criteria set by CAF.”
An official CAF document requires team doctors to certify that the players have “been examined…to verify their sex” and that the players “show no perceived deviation in secondary sex characteristics and are therefore presumed to be of female sex”.
In 2011, FIFA introduced similar “gender verification” regulations that required football associations to “actively investigate[e] any perceived deviation in secondary sex characteristics” – which are physical traits usually associated with a sex but not directly involved in reproduction. Entire women’s national teams were required to confirm, via team doctors and personal medical documents If necessary, the regulations state, a doctor may require “a physical examination by an independent expert.”
Rights advocates and scientists have slammed the requirements, calling them invasive and discriminatory — and designed primarily by Western men, based on traditional Western gender classifications, but applied to all of the world’s populations.
“These policies and procedures violate athlete privacy, and the tests themselves violate bodily autonomy,” Katrina Karkazis, an Amherst professor who has studied sexuality and testosterone, told Yahoo Sports.
They also completely exclude some athletes like Banda, who as a woman would likely not be allowed to compete in men’s football either. “For men’s FIFA competitions, only men are eligible to play,” the FIFA regulations state.
These regulations – although currently under review, according to FIFA – have not been overturned. And the CAFs are similar, if not stricter, according to Zambian officials.
Last fall, the International Olympic Committee updated its guidelines to discourage “invasive physical exams” and “policies that require women to alter their hormone levels to compete.” These, the IOC said, are “disrespectful” and “potentially harmful” and “may have serious adverse effects on their health”.
IOC officials said they heard directly from athletes who explained that the old regulations, which mandated the suppression of testosterone, “caused serious damage to their health”. In a high profile case, South African runner Caster Semenya recently told HBO that testosterone suppressing drugs “made me sick, made me gain weight”, gave her panic attacks and worried her about heart attacks.
“It’s like stabbing yourself with a knife every day,” Semenya said. If she wanted to compete, she “had no choice” but to take the drugs. She instead gave them up and, by extension, gave up on her Olympic dreams.
According to Zambian officials, Banda and other players faced a similar choice. FAZ spokesman Sydney Mungala told ESPN that following Banda’s stellar performance at the Olympics, he was told that his testosterone levels were above the CAF threshold and that he was had offered drugs to lower them. “Our doctors signed up the players and they weren’t willing to go through with it,” Mungala said, citing potential side effects.
BBC Sport Africa reported that Banda had taken medication but was still not meeting testosterone requirements.
Banda’s hormone levels did not affect his participation in professional leagues. She played for DUX Logroño in Spain as a teenager, then moved to Shanghai. She is now reportedly the subject of interest from Real Madrid, among other top European clubs, and could move this summer.
“Players who have been denied the opportunity to show their skills on African soil have been free to play in competitions organized by FIFA and the International Olympic Committee which deploy a less stringent standard,” said Kamanga, the president of the FAZ, in its press release.
But Banda will not participate in the African continental championship for his national team. Nor are three lesser-known teammates who, according to reports, were also deemed ineligible by the “gender verification” process. Their “opportunity”, Mungala told ESPN, “was lost”.
Banda has not publicly commented on the situation. While she was sidelined, she was tell his teammates: “I am with you until the end.”
FIFA spokespersons did not immediately respond to questions about the governing body’s rules. FIFA said it is “currently reviewing its gender eligibility rules” and consulting with medical, legal, scientific, performance and human rights experts, but did not comment on the case. of Banda.