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Sexual Exploitation in Sports

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By: Vinod Chandrashekhar Dixit

Star wrestler VineshPhogat accused Brij Bhushan Sharma of sexually harassing female wrestlers. The group of wrestlers were protesting against Wrestling Federation of India’s ‘arbitrary’ laws & called for a boycott of its president at Jantar Mantar. Wrestlers VineshPhogat, Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia and other wrestlers demanded action against the Wrestling Federation of India chief and other officials against alleged sexual exploitation of several athletes. Wrestlers, who have been protesting for two days at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, has now ended their sit-in after getting assurance from the central government to resolve their grievances. Neither Indian sports nor the governing body SAI is new to controversies. Flip through the pages of history and one can find several incidents of misbehaviour and allegations of sexual harassment made by leading sportswomen of the country.

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. Sexual abuse toward women athletes has been a problem for as long as women’s sports has existed. Most sexual harassment and abuse is perpetrated by people in positions of authority within the sport industry, often coaches. It happens in all sports and at all levels. Sexual harassment and abuse within the sports industry is suspected to be significantly underreported due to social conditions that discourage disclosure. Many hesitate to come forward fearing they won’t be believed or will be disregarded in favor of the perpetrators’ denial. According to data gathered from a right to information application, it was found that between 2010 to 2020, there were 45 complaints of sexual harassment to the SAI, of which 29 were against coaches.  Notably, VineshPhogat had previously alleged that coaches who are favourites of the WFI misbehave with women and harass them. She also accused the wrestling federation chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh of sexually harassing girls and calling her a ‘khotasikka’ after her defeat at the Tokyo Olympics 2020.

Many sexual harassment cases have involved coaches and mentors, and athletes are calling for an organized system allowing women to share complaints without fear of damaging their careers. Sexual harassment and abuse arise from the culture of sport and from the opportunities for exploitation of power and authority which this affords coaches. Commonly reported types of sexual harassment include “‘repeated unwanted sexually suggestive glances, jokes, comments, etc.’, ‘unwanted physical contact’, [and] ‘ridicule.’” There is a culture of subservience in sport and therefore ‘grooming’ becomes common, making it very hard for athletes to come forward and complain.

In multiple ways, a coach has significant power over an athlete. Traditionally, athletes place their trust in their coach, taking their advice and following their instructions uncritically because the coach has greater knowledge about and experience with the sport. Coaches can either boost or diminish the athletes’ self-esteem, and they have significant control over the participation and success of athletes and whether they lose their jobs. It’s evident that anywhere in the world, when vulnerable female athletes are placed in the charge of a male coach, there exists the danger that he could prey on them. It’s a very complex situation, and a monitoring mechanism independent of the sports federations would be the first step towards protecting female athletes.

No doubt, SAI has made it mandatory for all federations to ensure female athletes are accompanied by a female coach during domestic and international travel. SAI has also asked the federations to appoint a ‘compliance officer’ at national camps and tours in order to ensure the ‘Standard Operating Procedure on prevention of sexual harassment’ is followed, and that any violation is reported ‘at the earliest’.

Our Sports organisations must 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. Sports bodies have to take the lead and set conditions right so vulnerable athletes feel secure to come forward and complain.

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