While playing for a girls’ school team, she was forced to undress in front of the opposition to prove she was a girl. Her opponents did not believe she was female because of her physical appearance and how well she played.
The international footballer Tabitha Chawinga is calling on Malawi’s football authorities to introduce safeguards to protect women from abuse at all levels of the game.
Chawinga, who became the first woman from Malawi to sign for a European football team when she joined the Swedish club Krokom/Dvärsätts IF in 2014, said that she had been forced to strip in public during a match to prove she was female and was regularly trolled on social media about her looks.
“I don’t want other people to face the same. It makes me think, if they are insulting someone they have just met at the football ground, what would they do if I was born in their family. Could they have killed me?” she said in a telephone interview from China, where she now plays for Wuhan Jianghan University FC in the Chinese Women’s Super League and was voted Player of the Year two years in a row.
The 25-year-old, who has captained the Malawi national team and was ranked among the 100 best female footballers in the world by the Guardian last year, said that while playing for a girls’ school team when she was 13 she was forced to undress in front of the opposition to prove she was a girl. Her opponents did not believe she was female because of her physical appearance and how well she played.
“I had never been so devastated and I cried at the embarrassment that I had been exposed to. I wanted to walk out right away but somehow my teammates consoled me and I decided to finish the game,” she said. The incident made her quit the sport for a year.
The same thing happened a year later when she played for the Lilongwe women’s football team DD Sunshine – a move, she said, that was her first step into a professional football career.
During a women’s Presidential Cup match, she was told to undress on the pitch.
“We were participating in a Presidential Cup match and for our first game we travelled to Blantyre to play Blantyre Zero. It was a very difficult game and while it was being played, I was undressed right in the ground,” said Chawinga, who began playing football with her male cousins at a young age. “I lost it right at that moment and we ended up losing the game as well.”
DD Sunshine’s owner, David Dube, said that the club lodged a complaint at the time with the Football Association of Malawi but did not get a response.
Chawinga, from Rumphi district in northern Malawi, said that because she had been so young, she had not taken up the issue with the authorities but she now wanted to speak out.
“When I was being stripped, I was young and I didn’t know my rights. But if we talk about rights, they should be implemented. I am encouraging those women who have a passion for football that everything is possible. And being born different is not the end of the world,” said Chawinga, whose sister Temwa also plays in China.
“I would like to ask the government and the sports officials to make sure that the rights of every player are protected. This is the way I was born and I know I am God’s creation. I can’t change how I look,” she said.
“I am asking the women’s football officials to promote the wellbeing of players by protecting their human rights.”
Maggie Kathewera Banda, founder and executive director of the Women’s Legal Resources Centre, said what Chawinga went through was an act of gender-based violence. “This is a violation of someone’s dignity,” she said.
Alfred Gunda, general secretary of the Football Association of Malawi who was not at the organisation when the complaint was made by Chawinga’s club, said: “What happened is not right and we cannot condone it and that’s why we encourage, in this day and age, that officials take responsibility and take care of the players as their own kids, and also make sure that any incidents that happen are reported and the right measures are taken so that we protect our girls.”
He said the association ran youth development programmes and an under-15s schools programme to encourage more girls to take up the sport.
Source: The Guardian