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Women in sports: a path of hindrances

by Pooja Ganesh (Law Student, Sastra University)



Issues faced by women in sports are numerous. Commercialization in sports is one of the causes of the issues. The maltreatment faced by women through abuse and sexual harassment poses a negative influence on her health and integrity. These forms of non-accidental violence breach the human rights of the individual. The sports organizers are bound to identify and prevent the women players from such non-accidental violence. Olympics 2012 was the first time when every country had sent a minimum of one woman to represent their country.


Anand Datla, Head of Sports at ‘Tata Trusts’, once said that the major hindrance for women in India is the cultural baggage that women have to carry and have carried since generations. This applies in the context of women in sports as well. Women are instinctively considered to be unfit for sports. And society justifies that women's bodies aren't built for sport. If a woman shines in sports, then she is portrayed as manly and her body is minutely criticized. The sports media also tend to spotlight and portray women on the basis of their age, appearance, and family. Their sports talent is rarely the bottomline even though that’s how it should be. They are first considered as women and then as athletes. One of the main reasons for the lack of women in sports is the fear of being judged by their appearance and social stereotyping. The stigma should be broken so that we can pave the way for more young women in sports.

Gender Discrimination

Baron Pierre de Coubertin once said, “No matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks". This idea of gender discrimination has been a controversy over many years. India continues to be male-dominated in the field of sports. Many opportunities in the sports industry are not accessible to women. They are always considered as the weaker sex. Few sports women, for instance Deepika Kumari, Sita Sahu, Hima Das, Swapna Barman, Mithali Raj, Harmanpreet Kaur, Manika Batra, Vinesh Phogat, Dutee Chand, and Manu Bhaker amongst others, have outshone their male counterparts. Another important issue is that sports women are paid far less than their male counterparts and tournaments for women have far less prize money compared to men.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) issued the first gender/sex determination test in European Athletics Championships, 1996. This test was based on testosterone levels in the human body. The rule of this test was to disqualify the category of women whose testosterone levels were equal to that of men. This was considered to be a tool of major gender discrimination since this test was applied only on women in violation of the most basic principles of equality enshrined in Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. Female athletes were subjected to undergo visual testing, DNA, and other bodily fluids testing. This test raises a question on a person's gender and it is violative of the right to privacy enshrined under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

The famous track and field athlete Dutee Chand challenged the validity of the hyperandrogenism regulations of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). This federation had a regulation to measure the total testosterone level in the female body. When an athlete’s testosterone level does not satisfy the condition of the test then the panel will recommend the athlete to undergo surgery for reducing the testosterone level. Dutee Chand refused surgery and challenged the ban in the Court of Arbitration for Sport. She was the first athlete to challenge gender verification based on the hormone level by the IAAF. To ensure justice to the female athletes, the Court of Arbitration suspended the regulations for 2 years.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment in sports is mainly because of the coaches and sports organizations. In a few cases, it gone to the extent of leading harassed female athletes to commit suicide because of being sexually exploited by their coaches.[1] Many minor-age sportswomen are victims of these abuses. The law considers sports under the category of the workplace. The Vishaka Guidelines[2] provides the procedural guidelines to be applied in the cases of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment violates Article 21 which guarantees the right to life and personal liberty of a woman.[3] Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013 had superseded the “Vishaka guidelines.”

A victim of sexual harassment can lodge a complaint under Section 354 or 509 of the Indian Penal Code. The reason behind the non-disclosure of these abuses is because of the high authority of the perpetrator and the heightened vulnerability of the victim. Female athletes are physically and psychologically affected due to these abuses, which often leads victims to quit sports. This also affects the victim's family and peer groups. The female athletes are deprived of their opportunities, sponsorships, and medals. They are pulled into a traumatic situation. This possible sexual harassment often acts as a deterrent to women getting into sports itself.

The perpetrators of the harassments are usually the gym owners, coaches, and staff working for the respective sports. Lawrence Gerard Nassar is one such person who was convicted as a sexual offender. A former USA Gymnastics national team doctor, he was accused of assaulting around 265 young women. The victims were gymnasts who participated in the Olympics representing the United States. Olympic gold medalists McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, and Gabby Douglas were among the list of victims. Larry Nassar’s case was considered one of the largest sexual abuse scandals in the history of sports. USA Gymnastics adopted a new "safe sport policy" in response to this scandal, which requires mandatory reporting of suspicions of sexual abuse.

The way forward

The top priority is to frame effective preventive measures to protect female athletes from sexual harassment and abuse. Minor female athletes should be particularly cared for. Proper treatment should be given to sportswomen for both accidental and non-accidental violence in sports. Sports organizations should ensure that there is no gender discrimination and should implement policies and procedures for safe sports. Mechanisms should be established for free disclosure of problems of the sportswomen. Whistleblowers should be encouraged and awareness should be spread among the athletes about their rights. A neutral resolution mechanism without gender discrimination should be introduced for solving the issues of women in sports. And lastly, sportswomen should be treated as sportsmen in every single way.


[1] EMILY ROBERT, GENDER RELATIONS IN SPORT (Sense Publishers, edn.1, 2013).

[2] Vishaka v. State Of Rajasthan, A.I.R. 1997 S.C. 3011.

[3] Apparel Export Promotion Council v. A.K. Chopra, A.I.R. 1999 S.C. 625.

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