Gender suitability issues have been a topic of discussion between sports federations and governing bodies worldwide for decades. As sports federation officials ponder effective ways to implement these policies in women’s sport, a number of female athletes have become insecure and excluded from participating in the sport they love because of gender suitability issues.
In Africa, the case of gender qualifying issues has eroded excitement at one of the biggest women’s football tournaments on the continent, the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (WACON). History has repeated itself once more and Just like Anonman Genoveva was subjected to an inhuman proficiency test 12 years ago, Barbra Banda is also going through a similar predicament. Only this time she has not been allowed to take part in the tournament twice in a row since 2018.
The Zambian star made her name in global women’s football during last year’s Tokyo Olympics, becoming the first woman to score back-to-back hat-tricks at the games. She did so against China and 2019 runners-up Netherlands.
But Banda is not with Zambia at WACON, which doubles as a World Cup qualifier. Zambia managed to qualify for the Quarterfinals without her, putting the team just one win away from their first Women’s World Cup. A win over Senegal on Wednesday would seal Zambia’s spot at next year’s World Cup. The loser also gets a second chance via a playoff.
But in the absence of the continent’s most talented star, questions arise. How could Banda compete in the Olympics, a FIFA-sanctioned international event, but be prevented from playing with her team at WACON?
A day before the tournament, the Zambian Football Association (FAZ) announced Banda’s absence for “medical reasons”. The reason for her absence seemed suspicious and raised concerns about what was really happening.
According to FIFA rules, national teams must submit their athletes’ gender proficiency test. This must be done by their respective doctors. This is to serve as evidence under FIFA rules in the event that a team blames another team for harboring a man on their team.
Football Association of Zambia president Andrew Kamanga told the BBC they had passed all the team’s gender suitability test results to CAF. However, Banda failed this test.
Speaking anonymously to the BBC’s Osasu Obayiwuma, a CAF-Online official said Zambia had not submitted the name Banda for selection, nor did they confirm to CAF that she could not pass the gender aptitude test. “Osasu, everyone is criticizing us for Banda,” the official said. “But I have a question: did [Zambia] Submit your name as a member of Team Zambia for WACON? They never did that. So how can we talk about a player who was never suggested for registration or registered?
Hours later, the Zambian Football Association released one official press release Kamanga described CAF’s rejection as “rude” and “unfortunate,” officially stating in a press release that the team met all of the requirements set by CAF for the gender testing and did not understand why they openly denied the rules they had set themselves.
Speaking to BBC’s Obayiwuma for the Football Association of Zambia, Kamanga continued specified that he asked the Secretary General of the CAF, Veron Mosengo-Omba, to let Banda attend, but his efforts proved futile. He described the moment as a “deafening silence” among CAF officials.
Sydney Mungala, director of communications for the Football Association of Zambia, told ESPN that Babrbara was offered the opportunity to take hormone-suppressing medication, but she turned it down. Three other infamous Zambian players also failed the test and, like Banda, refused the medication.
It is not the first time that CAF’s gender eligibility test has raised questions among federations on the continent. In 2010, Equatorial Guinean star Genoveva Anonman was stripped naked in front of CAF officials to prove her gender. That was exactly one year after FIFA officially published its regulations on gender eligibility issues. FIFA’s rules deal entirely with evidence. The opposing team must have convincing evidence that the accused is not a woman, otherwise their complaints before the FIFA Disciplinary Board will be inadmissible.
The connection between Anonman and Banda
History has a funny way of repeating itself over time. In the case of Anonman, she was accused of being a man by rival teams like Nigeria and Ghana. FIFA rules require each team to conduct their own independent testing by their national team’s doctors. These results serve as evidence in case teams accuse a team of harboring a man on their team. Zambia’s FA describes FIFA’s rules as less “strict” compared to CAF’s, as they are primarily evidence-based.
When the pre-tournament tests were conducted, the Zambian FA probably wanted to prevent a similar problem to the Anonman case, where opposing teams could point fingers to question Banda’s gender. Again, they had no choice but to be transparent with CAF because should FIFA rules be applied, however long and boring, both the player and the FA could face severe sanctions. At least that seems to be the ZFA’s way of thinking.
Based on this notion, Kamanga had to make this public because he saw it as unfair and discriminatory. And with Banda’s worldwide notoriety, he knew questions would definitely be asked as to why she was absent. Banda was called up to the Copper Queens roster, but on July 1 she was ruled out of the tournament for “medical reasons.”
According to Ghana international and Gotham FC midfielder Jennifer Cudjoe, Banda’s case is unfortunate and she is hoping for a better shape for her.
“I think there is a big agenda in Morocco,” says Cudjoe The equalizer. “We saw this gender test being used on the Ghana U-17 team during their World Cup qualifiers [in May 2022].”
A close source among Ghanaian women’s football officials, who decided to speak exclusively on anonymity, told The Equalizer that teams are not required to undergo a gender test during qualifiers, so there was a breach.
Continuing her point, Cudjoe says, “We’re usually seen as a threat to people of color because we’re building a lot of muscle. I wouldn’t describe myself as male; I would describe myself as a feminine, muscular woman and I think the world should start seeing muscular women in that way.”
African women footballers live under constant threats that prevent them from showing what they can do. This has made women feel uncomfortable in the African football environment in which they play. Banda plays for Shanghai FC in China – and is the subject of huge transfer rumors – and has never been accused of being male. Her alleged move to Real Madrid is now reportedly in doubt due to questions about her gender.
The big question is: How was Barbara admitted to the Olympics but declared ineligible to play in the Africa Cup of Nations?
Reunion with the Olympic Games
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Athletics Federation (IAAF) have been strict about hormone testing over the years. According to IAAF rules, an athlete must not exceed the testosterone limit of 5 nmol/l. This has affected athletes like Castor Semanya, Francine Niyonsaba and Dutee Chand. Semanya and Chand have challenged the IAAF’s decisions through a litany of appeals over the years.
Namibian track and field stars Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi were recently banned from taking part in the women’s 400m at the Tokyo Olympics. However, a 2017 testosterone study proved that testosterone levels had no effect on female athletes in many events except 400m, 800m, 1 mile, hammer and pole vault. This has no impact on soccer and other events and explains why Canadian Quinn, a transgender and non-binary soccer player, competed in the Olympics.
The testosterone limit of CAF is still unknown.
Banda, who has been sidelined in the competition, is still rallying her support behind her team. Her No. 11 jersey was given to Siomela Mapepa. Zambia started their Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup qualifiers after a goalless draw with Cameroon. But Avell Chitundu’s 92nd-minute goal against Tunisia boosted hopes. They are within reach of their first World Cup place without their star. Qualifying for the big stage would raise further questions about Banda’s World Cup eligibility.
Corresponding BBC’s Obayiuwana, FIFA is preparing a verdict on the Barbara Banda case. There was originally talk of a disbandment during the tournament, but as of this writing there is none. The BBC source claimed FIFA had issues with the CAF’s gender verification document, describing it as “discriminatory and contrary to FIFA’s gender verification regulations”. FIFA is reportedly ready to sanction the CAF official who allowed the document to be used.