clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Human Rights Watch demands end to abusive sex testing in women’s athletics

The human rights group is calling for an end to the ‘discriminatory but necessary’ practice by World Athletics.

(L/R) Uganda’s Annet Negesa and Kenya’s Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

While Caster Semenya continues to pursue her appeal against World Athletics’ self-professed “discriminatory” policy restricting testosterone levels in women’s track and field, Human Rights Watch has thrown its support behind the growing movement against the mandatory and abusive medical interventions, which force runners to choose between conforming to a rigid and exclusionary definition of woman, or to stop competing.

With this action, HRW is accusing World Athletics of human rights violations by means of discriminating against women on the basis of their sex, their sex characteristics, and their gender expression, engaging in what HRW calls “vitriolic public criticism that has ruined careers and lives,” and never once instituting similar regulations or treatment for male athletes. And the group notes women who aren’t white are disproportionately targeted.

A report released by HRW on Friday highlights the case of Ugandan runner Annet Negesa and the medically unnecessary interventions demanded by World Athletics to allow her to continue to compete as an intersex woman.

As reported by the New York Times’ Geneva Abdul in 2019, Negesa has publicly shared the emotional, psychological and physical tolls that these medically unnecessary surgeries have taken on her, as well as the financial imposition of taking on these medical and travel expenses out of pocket. Friday’s HRW report goes on to detail the human rights violations faced by stigmatizing intersex athletes and women with above average testosterone levels, including the arbitrary surveillance of women’s bodies, coercion into undergoing surgeries without genuinely being given a choice, and the social stigma of having one’s sex characteristics and gender debated in a public forum.

The case of Indian sprinter Dutee Chand is highlighted here by HRW: Only 18 years old at the time she was first targeted by World Athletics, Chand underwent both public scrutiny over the policy’s pathologizing of her supposedly “masculine” figure as well as invasive physical exams without her informed consent.

Katrina Karkazis, a co-author of the HRW report and a visiting professor of women’s gender and sexuality studies at Emory University, stresses how World Athletics’ current policies unfairly target LGBTQI athletes and particularly women of color.

“This is a regulation that was created primarily and overwhelmingly by policymakers from the Global North, with their own understanding of what fairness might be,” Karkazis said on a 2019 episode of the podcast Burn It All Down, regarding the medical-colonial framework behind the policing of Caster Semenya’s testosterone levels. “I can guarantee you that if we had a room full of policymakers from the Global South, their notion about what’s fair to female athletes would be completely different, and it would likely not center at all on testosterone levels, but any number of other things.”

In 2020 Karkazis went on to explain that while the policies may not be intentionally racist, the overwhelming majority of athletes impacted are women of color. “[Intersex] babies have had no ability to contest or consent to the interventions that have happened to them at birth, and so it’s not that there are more women in the Global South with sex variations, it’s that the women in the Global North have had non-consenting, nonconsensual, irreversible interventions on their bodies, so they’re not living with higher than typical testosterone levels, generally speaking,” Karkazis said.

“It’s an outmoded paradigm to sort of normalize, if you will, bodies thought to be not ‘conventional’ enough, and to do that in a way that is not under the guise of what is best for the woman, medically or otherwise. Indeed, it’s not under the direction or advice of a physician at all — it’s in order to comply with a mandate in order to continue their careers.

“There’s multiple intersecting things that are happening at once, because there’s no question that there are racialized gazes around femininity and norms for femininity that also affect who it is that looks suspicious or becomes suspicious, and then who it is that might have high testosterone will be limited based on whether or not somebody’s been intervened upon early in life.”

HRW concludes its report with the issue of redress, and how the women athletes targeted by these discriminatory regulations have little to no option to contest the rules set by World Athletics and upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. “World Athletics eligibility regulations for the female classification constitute a continuation of the historic harms of sex testing, and do more than just drive women out of sport: they ruin lives.”

Intersex and especially racialized women within this system are being made to choose between their careers and their basic human rights and dignity, and this report is a call to action: to bring an end to the discriminatory policies in international track and field.

This week’s episode of the Outsports podcast Five Rings To Rule Them All with host Cyd Zeigler features his interview with Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch to talk about their new report. Listen here: