Barbra Banda is not eligible to play for Zambia in the Africa Cup of Nations due to gender verification rules
Barbra Banda, a rising star in women’s football and captain of the Zambian national team, has been ruled ineligible to play for this summer’s Africa Cup of Nations by “gender verification tests”, according to Zambian football authorities and multiple reports.
Banda, a 22-year-old forward, scored two hat-tricks at last summer’s Summer Olympics and excelled for her Chinese club Shanghai Shengli. But she was mysteriously “unavailable” for Zambia’s women’s AFCON opener on Sunday for what Zambia’s Football Association (FAZ) put it, for “medical reasons”.
Reports soon surfaced that pre-tournament testing had revealed natural testosterone levels exceeding 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 Association CAF and are in line with regulations developed by FIFA, the sport’s global governing body.
CAF has distanced himself from Banda’s absence, and did not respond to Emox News’ request for comment. But Kamanga told BBC Sport Africa: “All players had to undergo gender verification, a CAF requirement 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 gender” and that the players “have no perceived deviation in secondary sex characteristics and are therefore assumed to be female”.
In 2011, FIFA outlined similar “gender verification” regulations that required football governing bodies to “actively investigate[e] any perceived variation in secondary sex characteristics”—physical traits typically associated with a sex but not directly involved in reproduction. All women’s national teams had to certify that they were women through team doctors and personal medical documents. If necessary, the regulation states, a medical officer can request “a physical examination by an independent expert”.
Lawyers and academics have criticized the requirements, calling them invasive and discriminatory – and developed primarily by Western men, based on traditional Western gender classifications, but applied to the entire world population.
“These policies and procedures violate the athlete’s privacy, and the testing itself violates physical autonomy,” Katrina Karkazis, an Amherst professor who has studied sexuality and testosterone, told Emox News.
They also completely exclude certain athletes like Banda, who as a woman probably wouldn’t be allowed to compete in men’s football either. “Only men are eligible to play in FIFA men’s competitions,” according to the FIFA regulations.
These regulations – although FIFA says they are currently under review – have not been withdrawn. And CAFs are similar, if not stricter, according to Zambian officials.
Last fall, the International Olympic Committee updated its guidelines to advise against “invasive physical exams” and “policies requiring women to change their hormone levels in order to compete.” These, according to the IOC, are “disrespectful” and “potentially harmful” and “can have serious adverse effects on their health”.
IOC officials said they had heard directly from athletes who said old regulations mandating testosterone suppression were “seriously damaging 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 made her worry 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 medication. Instead, she gave them up and with them her Olympic dreams.
According to Zambian officials, Banda and other players faced a similar choice. FAZ spokeswoman Sydney Mungala told ESPN that after Banda’s breakthrough at the Olympics, she was told her testosterone levels were above the CAF threshold and was offered medication to lower them. “Our medics hired the players and they weren’t willing to go through with it,” Mungala said, pointing to the possible side effects.
BBC Sport Africa reported that Banda had been on medication but was still not meeting testosterone requirements.
Banda’s hormone levels have not affected her participation in professional leagues. As a teenager she played for DUX Logroño in Spain and then moved to Shanghai. She is now reportedly the subject of interest from Real Madrid and other top European clubs and could make a move this summer.
“The players who were denied the opportunity to demonstrate their skills on African soil were free to participate in competitions organized by FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, which apply less strict standards,” said FAZ President Kamanga in his explanation.
But Banda will not represent her national team at the African Continental Championship. Neither will three lesser-known teammates who were also reportedly ruled ineligible by the “gender verification process.” Their “opportunity,” Mungala told ESPN, “was lost.”
Banda has not commented publicly on the situation. While she was sidelined, she was tell your teammates: “I’m with you all the way.”
FIFA spokesmen did not immediately respond to questions about the governing body’s rules. FIFA has said it is “currently reviewing its gender suitability regulations” and is consulting with medical, legal, scientific, performance and human rights experts, but has not commented on Banda’s case.