Sexual harassment in sport
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Marking the end of 16 Days of Activism 2021, we look at six instances where sportswomen spoke out about their personal experiences with sexual harassment and violence.

Sport, when purposefully planned, gives us the environment and opportunity to enforce values such as respect and equality, both on and off the field, and can reduce gender inequalities and violence against women.

Yet, sport can also influence attitudes and behaviours that condone violence against women, and is often a space where violence against women and sexual harassment can take place.

Here are six instances where sportswomen have spoken out about the sexual harassment and violence they have faced.

  1. Peng Shuai

In November 2021, Chinese professional tennis player Peng Shuai accused former Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. This was the first time a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party had been accused of sexual harassment, and within 20 minutes of her sharing her story on her Weibo account it was removed by authorities. After she disappeared from public view following her accusations, alarms were raised about her safety and whereabouts.

In response to her allegations and subsequent disappearance, many sport organisations and fellow sportspersons have come out in support of Shuai, including Naomi Osaka, Billie Jean King, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The Women’s Tennis Association has suspended tournaments in China following the ordeal.

  1. US Women’s Gymnastics team

In 2016, former gymnast Rachael Denhollander was one of two female gymnasts that had filed a sexual harassment complaint against Larry Nassar, USA Gymnastics’ national team doctor. After her accusation, more than 265 women came forward and accused Nassar of sexually assaulting them. His accusers include former and current US Gymnastics national team members Jessica Howard, Jamie Dantzscher, Morgan White, Jeanette Antolin, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Maggie Nichols, Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles.

Nassar had sexually abused athletes for at least 14 years of his career, under the pretence of providing medical treatment. Many of his victims were minors. Considered the largest sexual abuse scandal in sports history, Nassar is serving terms for multiple offenses in federal prison, including charges of sexual assault and child pornography.

In 2021, Maroney, Biles, Nichols and Raisman testified before the US Senate on the FBI’s failure to investigate earlier complaints against Nassar.

  1. Afghanistan women’s soccer team

In 2018 it was revealed that members of the Afghanistan national women’s team were sexually and physically abused by men from the country’s football federation, including president Keramuddin Karim. In 2019, following an investigation by FIFA, Karim was banned from football for life. A warrant was issued for his arrest, but he evaded a special forces attempt to arrest him, and currently remains at large.

  1. Shim Suk-hee

In 2018, Olympic gold medallist and South Korean short track speed skater Shim Suk-hee accused her former coach, Cho Jae-beom, of sexually and physically assaulting her when she was a minor. Due to the continued abuse, she left the national team, in order to avoid further assaults.

Cho was found guilty of physically and sexually abusing Shim, and is serving a 12-year sentence in prison.

  1. US female fencers

Controversy arose in 2021 when fencer Alen Hadzic was allowed to represent the US at the Tokyo Olympics, even though he was under investigation for at least three counts of sexual misconduct against fellow fencers, with some allegations dating back to 2010. Though initially suspended, he got the prohibition lifted through an arbitration process.

After a group of six female fencers from Team USA raised concerns over Hadzic being part of the team, a ‘safety plan’ was devised to keep Hadzic far from other female competitors, including flying in to Tokyo on a separate plane from his teammates, staying away from the Olympic Village and barring him from practicing with female teammates.

In 2021, USA Fencing blocked Hadzic from entering events organised by them.

  1. Haitian female footballers

In 2020, many Haitian female footballers came out to accuse Haitian Football Federation president Yves Jean-Bart of sexual assault and misconduct of multiple footballers, including minors. One of his accusers claimed to have needed an abortion after being raped by him.

In November 2020, Jean-Bart was banned for life from football by FIFA.

Eliminating violence against women

The aforementioned instances highlight the need for organisations and sport bodies to do more to ensure that sport remains a safe space for women to participate and succeed in.

Many organisations have undertaken policies and structures to modify organisational culture to prevent violence against women and promote gender equality. Many male-dominated sporting organisations have attempted to improve women’s participation by having better female representation on their board of directors and creating gender-equal human resource policies.

Many organisations also have guidelines for preventing violence against women in their player and employee codes of conduct, and have mechanisms for responding to allegations of sexual misconduct and violence.

In December 2021, it was announced that FIFA and a UN body were going to launch a global investigative network to tackle sexual abuse in all sport. While some have hailed this move as a step in the right direction, others, including Human Rights Watch and the international players’ union Fifpro are unsure if FIFA is the right body to set up this network, pointing to their abysmal track record in dealing with abuse cases.


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