The Right to be Free from Sexual Abuse: Child Athletes as Victims

The abuse of child athletes, with recent cases in football[1] and basketball, continues to be a human rights violation experienced by all genders in developed and developing States.[2] From 297 former and current athletes surveyed by Project Census of Athlete Rights Experiences (“Project CARE”) from December of 2019 to June of 2020, 37% reported at least one incident of physical abuse during their child athletic careers, 61% reported at least one incident of emotional abuse, and 13% reported at least one incident of sexual abuse.[3] 21% of women and 11% of men reported experiencing sexual abuse.[4] The most commonly reported forms of sexual abuse include receiving online sexual content, exposing private parts, speaking sexually, and sending nude photos.[5] In most cases, these child athletes are abused by those closest to them in positions of authority, such as coaches, doctors, and counselors.[6]

Detrimental effects result from child athletes being victims of sexual abuse.[7] Child victim-survivors may experience “social embarrassment, problems establishing social tiers, impacts on family and friends, lowered self-esteem, alcohol and drug use, and eating and sleep disorders.”[8] In the context of sports, the victim-survivor may abandon their sport, decline in performance, decline in training attendance, or lose concentration during training.[9] To remedy the long-lasting psychological and physical consequences that the violation of child athletes’ bodily autonomy results in,[10] the right to be free from sexual abuse must be universally recognized and implemented in international and domestic systems.

This article will argue for an explicit and implemented right to be free from sexual abuse in terms of child athletes as victims by first examining the current international law for such a right. Next, the international treaties and the domestic law of sexual abuse in Afghanistan, Haiti, and Mali will be discussed given their recently reported cases of child sexual abuse in sport. These unsatisfactory prevention mechanisms, penalties to the perpetrators, and remedies for child victim-survivors will provide a backdrop for discussing potential solutions for improving the enforceability of sexual abuse laws within sports.

International Law Governing Sexual Abuse

International law articulates a right to be free from sexual abuse in the context of child athletes. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (“CRC”)—ratified by Afghanistan, Haiti, and Mali[11]—requires States to protect children from “all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.”[12] States must “promote [the] physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim.”[13] The Convention also requires States to make the provisions widely known to adults and children “by appropriate and active means.”[14] Moreover, children possess the right “to engage in play and recreational activities” that are age-appropriate.[15] Similarly, the Universal Declaration of Player Rights provides child athletes with the opportunity to safely participate in sport with their rights protected.[16] In fact, all players are “entitled to a safe and secure…sporting environment.”[17]

Unlike the binding provisions of the CRC to its ratifying parties, non-binding texts also aim to protect victim-survivors of sexual abuse and prevent such harm. According to the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, violence against women includes “rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation” as “[p]hysical, sexual and psychological violence.”[18] The Committee of the Convention on the Elimination of Violence against Women (CEDAW) defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexually determined behaviour [including] physical contact and advances, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography and sexual demands, whether by words or actions.”[19] Although, the legal systems tend to emphasize sexual abuse against women rather than recognizing that all genders are victims of sexual abuse. As defined by the World Health Organization, sexual violence is “any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion.”[20] Furthermore, States and sports organizations, like the International Olympic Committee, also establish laws and policies for defining sexual abuse and outlining remedies, such as reporting standards, for victims.[21] Unfortunately, international law, domestic law (such as in Afghanistan, Haiti, and Mali), and sports organization policy do not necessarily equate to enforcement.

Law by State: International Treaties and Domestic Law


In 2018, Khalida Popal, a former captain of the women’s national team for the Afghanistan Football Federation (“AFF”), exposed the sexual abuse and rape of several fifteen- and sixteen-year-old players by AFF President Keramuudin Karim and some team officials.[22] Allegedly, Karim sexually abused and beat his victims in his office, which contained a room with a bed and doors requiring fingerprint recognition to exit effectively locking the victims inside.[23] Karim also allegedly removed players from the team to prevent them from reporting sexual abuse, through means including accusing nine players of being lesbians, which is culturally akin to a crime for many Afghans.[24] From these informal deterrence mechanisms, child victim-survivors feared retaliation for ineffective remedies and exercised reluctance in reporting these crimes. This reluctance to report was further reinforced when in 2017, the International Federation of Association Football (“FIFA”) did not act after receiving an email reporting abuse from a member of the AFF.[25] Ultimately, Popal informed the media of the abuse within the AFF occurring since 2013, calling attention to these crimes.[26]

After the publicized accusations of sexual abuse, different entities condemned the crimes. One of the team’s sponsors withdrew.[27] In response to the violations of the FIFA Code of Ethics to protect physical and mental integrity and to not abuse the position, in 2019, FIFA penalized Karim with the most severe sanction possible under the FIFA Code of Ethics, a lifetime ban from “all football-related activities” at the national and international levels, and a fine of one million Swiss francs.[28] The Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld Karim’s ban and fine, concluding that he violated the players’ human rights, damaged their dignity and integrity, destroyed their careers, and damaged their lives.[29] For failing to prevent or report the sexual abuse, Sayed Aghazada, former general secretary of the AFF, and Mohammad Hanif Sediqi Rustam, the former assistant to Karim, received a five-year ban from football and a fine of ten thousand Swiss francs.[30] The Afghan Attorney General’s Office issued an arrest warrant for Karim, Afghan security forces raided Karim’s native province, and the Afghan President called upon citizens to “expel” Karim from the region.[31] However, as of March 31, 2021, Afghan security forces have not arrested Karim for sexual abuse.[32]

While the reports of AFF’s sexual abuse of child athletes did not result in criminal remedies, Afghanistan law provides the right to be free from sexual abuse. The Law on Elimination of Violence against Women (“EVAW,” 2009) defines sexual assault as “committing fornication and pederasty act on…[an] underage woman.”[33] The sexual assault of an underaged woman requires the offender to pay a fine equivalent to a dowry to the victim and results in maximum imprisonment—or the death penalty if the assault caused the victim’s death.[34] When the victim is below the age of eighteen or the offender is in a position of authority over the victim, the offender may be sentenced to imprisonment of ten years or less.[35] The harassment of a woman results in at least three months imprisonment and at minimum six months if the offender used their authority or position.[36] However, the enforcement of the law is questionable, as evidenced by Karim’s unfulfilled arrest warrant as well as the gendered definition of victims of sexual assault and harassment as “women” in the statutes.

Despite the EVAW being reaffirmed in 2018, the statute’s actual effectiveness is uncertain because of the deterrence to reporting, continuing complaints from victim-survivors, the pressures to accept mediation, the failure of police to arrest suspects, like Karim, and the recent invasion of the Taliban.[37] Further, avoiding the constraints of reporting sexual abuse in Afghanistan became more difficult when the Asian Football Confederation (“AFC”) allegedly told the AFF players attempting to report the abuse that the AFF’s president or general secretary must contact the AFC instead because the AFC could only speak to its members.[38] While FIFA implemented child protection and safeguarding systems in 2019, the guidelines remain voluntary, requiring the victim-survivors to report the abuse despite fear of career loss, not requiring background checks for its officials, and the risk of shame or death of themselves or their family.[39]


Despite FIFA’s new safeguards, FIFA experienced another case of sexual abuse in Haiti in 2020. An investigation uncovered ten potential perpetrators and thirty-four possible victims of systematic sexual abuse from 2014 to 2020.[40] Fourteen players were potential victims of Yves Jean-Bart, who was the President of the Haitian Football Federation (“FHF”) and a former FIFA standing committee member.[41] In fact, a former player, who may or may not be a victim of abuse, gave birth to Jean-Bart’s child; also at least two of the victims became pregnant from the sexual abuse and had abortions.[42] Moreover, if the athletes came from an impoverished background, their abusers called them “restaveks,” which in Haitian is a term for child slaves.[43]

At a FIFA-funded training center called The Ranch, Jean-Bart threatened to end players’ football careers if they did not agree to be his “habitual mistress.”[44] He also gifted the girls underwear.[45] Eventually, FIFA penalized Jean-Bart with a lifetime ban from football in Haiti and internationally.[46] Jean-Bart was also fined one million Swiss francs for systematic sexual abuse, in which he hired loyal employees to be officials at The Ranch and the FHF to conceal his abuse.[47] Nonetheless, following a criminal investigation, a Haitian court dismissed his charges.[48]

Similar to Afghanistan, Haitian law contains a right to be free from sexual abuse, yet the criminal justice system does not enforce the right in practice. For instance, the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women, ratified by Haiti,[49] includes sexual abuse, rape, forced prostitution, and sexual harassment as violence against women.[50] The Convention requires States to “prevent, punish and eradicate” violence against women by “prevent[ing], investigat[ing] and impos[ing] penalties,” adopting legal measures, establishing effective remedies, and adopting legislation.[51] A person can also file a claim with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that a member State, like Haiti, violated its duties, but victim-survivors must be aware of this treaty to exercise their rights.[52]

As of 2005, Haiti criminalized rape and sexual assault punishable with ten years of hard labor—fifteen years of forced labor if the victim is under fifteen years old.[53] Abuse, violence, and exploitation of children are prohibited as well.[54] Public officers must report their knowledge of a crime.[55] When the new penal code is implemented in June of 2022, sexual harassment and gender-based violence will be included as punishable offenses, and rape offenders may be punished with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.[56]

However, similar to the voluntary FIFA guidelines, domestic law in Haiti must be enforced to be effective.[57] Child athletes cannot be sufficiently protected from abuse if they do not trust the reporting mechanisms. Sexual abuse victims within the FHF and the victims’ families received death threats after reporting the crimes.[58] In addition to controlling their sport, Jean-Bart reinforced his power over the players’ livelihoods by issuing visas, which are difficult to obtain in Haiti.[59] Considering low reporting rates and the presence of at least three hundred Haitian women at The Ranch continuously, more players may have been victims of sexual abuse than is known.[60] Players remained wary of reporting the abuse since FIFA did not suspend Jean-Bart until two months after FIFA’s initial awareness of the alleged abuse.[61] Not to mention, the players and witnesses who reported the offenses were not immediately protected, for an individual at FIFA informed the FHF about the claim.[62] Although FIFA established new voluntary guidelines after the case in Afghanistan, language barriers may be another intimidating obstacle for victims to report crimes. Regardless, the FHF has not even implemented any recommendations.[63]


In 2021, an investigation discovered sexual harassment and abuse concerning the Mali Basketball Federation (“FMBB”).[64] Twenty-two of the victims did not participate in the investigation for fear of retaliation.[65] One player alleged FMBB removed her from the World Cup national team after she reported her sexual abuse.[66] Unlike Karim and Jean-Bart, Amadou Bamba, who was the then-head coach of Mali’s Under-18 women’s national basketball team, was arrested and indicted for pedophilia, attempted rape, and molestation,[67] and is currently awaiting trial.[68] In addition, Harouna Maiga, who was the FMBB President, as well as seven basketball officials were suspended.[69] Maiga further lied to the investigators about his prior knowledge of the sexual abuse within the FMBB.[70]

As in Afghanistan and Haiti, Malian law fails to be adequately enforced to prevent sexual abuse of child athletes and provide remedies for victims. The Protocol to the African Charter on Human Rights and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, ratified by Mali, defines violence against women as “all acts perpetrated against women which cause or could cause them physical, sexual, psychological, and economic harm, including the threat to take such acts.”[71] Under the treaty, States must protect women from sexual violence,[72] and enforce laws to prohibit violence against women[73] while punishing the perpetrators and implementing rehabilitation as well as remedies for the victims.[74]

However, domestic law in Mali does not specifically address domestic violence and sexual harassment.[75] While sexual harassment is not outlawed, the sexual exploitation of children is prohibited, and its penalties range from six months to three years imprisonment with a monetary fine.[76] Given that the legal minimum marriage age for girls is fifteen, the statutory rape law defining the age of eighteen as the age of consent is not enforced.[77] In addition, a rape conviction should receive anywhere from five to twenty years of imprisonment, but the law is rarely enforced.[78]

Besides the unenforced rights, reporting of sexual abuse remains low because of societal pressures, perpetrators being relatives and in positions of authority, and fear of retaliation.[79] The victim-survivors and witnesses feared retaliation from the FMBB because the investigation did not provide confidentiality, witness protection, or trauma support for the victim-survivors.[80] A seventeen-year-old player alleged she was removed from the national team because she reported her sexual abuse.[81] Despite the arrest of Bamba and the suspension of Maiga and other officials, the players did not receive any remedies, “such as compensation, trauma support, [or] playing opportunities.”[82] Not to mention, Maiga continued to act as President of the FMBB until July 23—more than a month after Human Rights Watch warned the investigation about Maigi’s involvement.[83]

In addition, International Basketball Federation’s (“FIBA”) President Hamane Niang retained his position despite not enforcing a reporting mechanism at FMBB when he was president or when he oversaw it as the FIBA President; the FMBB still does not provide an adequate reporting system.[84] A union could provide a safe alternative for players to report sexual abuse. However, in 2012 officials threatened the players who requested a union with not being chosen for the national team.[85] On the other hand, following FIBA’s awareness of the allegations, it protected victims, appointed a psychologist and a law firm, organized psychosocial activities and educational discussions, accompanied the U19 and U16 women’s teams during their travel, and took action for the long-term, including an initiative to be presented for board approval in November of 2021.[86] Overall, enforcement of the law governing sexual abuse remains inconsistent with its practice in States.

Solutions to Implement a Right to Be Free from Sexual Abuse

As evidenced by the recent cases of sexual abuse of child athletes in Afghanistan, Haiti, and Mali, the international and domestic right to be free from sexual abuse as a child must be better enforced. International and domestic law must explicitly include child athletes as a protected party and provide legal remedies specifically for child athletes because the law fails to account for the potentially coercive relationships with their coach and other sports officials. Further, sport organization guidelines are not mandatory.[87] Unlike Afghan laws, laws must also clarify that they protect all genders from sexual abuse despite the majority of victims being girls and women. Moreover, sports officials must be required to undergo a background check before being hired to work with children.[88] International sports organizations should also consider a registry for sexual abuse allegations and convictions of sports officials.[89]

Sports organizations, like FIFA and FIBA, and domestic legal institutions should cooperate to develop a holistic investigation that protects the anonymity of the victims and to enforce criminal penalties against the perpetrators, instead of only enforcing sports bans by the sports organizations. While alleged offenders possess the right to be innocent until proven guilty, given the gravity of sexual abuse against children, accused sports officials should at least be temporarily suspended from their position until the investigations are completed. In addition, anonymous reporting mechanisms for sexual abuse must be enforced to build trust for child victim-survivors to report crimes.[90] To hold sports institutions accountable, independent regional experts should be responsible for receiving and assessing confidential reports of sexual abuse in sport.[91]

Beyond State criminal justice systems and sports organizations, individuals must create a social environment receptive to potential victims’ claims and a culture adverse to sexual abuse. By educating victims of their available rights and remedies, social movements, such as the Me-Too movement, encourage victims of violence to report crimes and remove the shame of being victim-survivors.[92] Workshops for sports officials and players must be made mandatory to provide instruction on the law defining sexual abuse, and the rights and remedies available for potential victim-survivors.[93] To prevent more cases like those in Afghanistan, Haiti, and Mali, a right to be free from sexual abuse must be better enforced domestically and internationally.

  1. In this article, the term “football” describes American soccer as the globally recognized name for the sport.
  2. Celia Brackenridge, Kari Fasting, Sandra Kirby, & Trisha Leahy, Protecting Children from Violence in Sport: A Review with a Focus on Industrialized Countries, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, 13 (July 2010), []; See Rachel Bachman, Abuse Scandal Rocks Portland, the Epicenter of Women’s Soccer, The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 9, 2021), [] (2021 case of sexual abuse of former players for the U.S. National Women’s Soccer League’s Portland Thorns by their former coach).
  3. Daniel J.A. Rhind, Hayley Musson, Andrea Florence, Pamela Gilpin, & Gigi Alford, Census of Athlete Rights Experiences Report 2021, World Players Association, 6-7, 39 (May 11, 2021), [].
  4. Id. at 39.
  5. Id.
  6. Brackenridge et al., supra note 2, at 13.
  7. Sylvie Parent & Karim El Hlimi, Sexual Abuse of Young People in Sport, Institut National de Santé Publique Québec (Nov. 2012), [].
  8. Id.
  9. Id.
  10. Id.
  11. Status of Ratification, U.N. Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, [].
  12. G.A. Res. 44/25, Convention on the Rights of the Child, art. 34 (Nov. 20, 1989).
  13. Id. at art. 39.
  14. Id. at art. 42.
  15. Id. at art. 31(1).
  16. Universal Declaration of Player Rights, World Players Association, ¶ 4 (Dec. 14, 2017), [].
  17. Id. at ¶ 9.
  18. G.A. Res. 48/104, Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, art. 2(b) (Dec. 20, 1993).
  19. Eileen Skinnider, Handbook on Effective Prosecution Responses to Violence against Women and Girls, U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, 10 (Aug. 2014), [].
  20. World Report on Violence and Health, World Health Organization, 149 (Etienne G. Krug, Linda L. Dahlberg, James A. Mercy, Anthony B. Zwi, & Rafael Lozano eds., 2002), [].
  21. See IOC Launches Toolkit for Olympic Movement to Safeguard Athletes from Harassment and Abuse in Sport, International Olympic Committee (Nov. 3, 2017), [].
  22. Lars Jørgensen, Sexual Abuse in Football: Presidential Predators and Pedophile Child Molesters, Play the Game (Apr. 27, 2021), [].
  23. Suzanne Wrack, FIFA Examining Claims of Sexual and Physical Abuse on Afghanistan Women’s Team, The Guardian (Nov. 30, 2018), [].
  24. Id.; Jørgensen, supra note 22.
  25. Jørgensen, supra note 22.
  26. Id.; AIHRC Calls for Ex-football Federation Head’s Arrest, Afghanistan Times (Mar. 31, 2021), [].
  27. Wrack, supra note 23.
  28. Media Release, The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) Confirms the Life Ban Imposed on Keramuddin Karim, Court of Arbitration for Sport (July 14, 2020), [].
  29. Id.; See also Karim Keramuddin v. FIFA, CAS 2019/A/6388 (Ct. Arb. Sport 2019), [].
  30. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Human Rights Reports: Afghanistan, U.S. Dep’t of State, [].
  31. Ayaz Gul, U.S. Demands Afghan Soccer Official Be Brought to Justice for Sexual Abuse, VOA News (Sept. 10, 2020), [].
  32. AIHRC Calls for Ex-football Federation Head’s Arrest, supra note 26.
  33. Law on Elimination of Violence against Women, 2009 (Issue No 989) (Afg.), art. 3, [].
  34. Id. at art. 17.
  35. Id.
  36. Id. at art. 30.
  37. Afghanistan: Justice System Failing Women, Human Rights Watch (Aug. 5, 2021), [].
  38. Wrack, supra note 23.
  39. Jørgensen, supra note 22.
  40. Id.; Haiti: Lifetime Ban for Football Chief, Human Rights Watch (Nov. 24, 2020), [].
  41. Jørgensen, supra note 22.
  42. Johnathan Crane & Barbara Mohr, Haitian Football’s Sexual Abuse Scandal: A Tangled Web with Jean-Bart at Its Center, Deutsche Welle (Apr. 6, 2020), [].
  43. Jørgensen, supra note 22.
  44. Id.
  45. Id.
  46. Id.
  47. Id.; Haiti: Lifetime Ban for Football Chief, supra note 40.
  48. Long-time Haitian Football President Expects Full Exoneration Following Filing of Legal Appeal Before the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Global Newswire (Feb. 1, 2021), [].
  49. General Information of the Treaty: A-61, Dep’t of Int’l Law, OAS, [].
  50. Organization of American States, Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (“Convention of Belem do Para”), ch. 1, art. 2, June 9, 1994, [].
  51. See id. at ch. III, art. 7.
  52. Id. at ch. IV, art. 12.
  53. Haiti: National Child Protection Legislation, International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children, 1, art. 278-79, [].
  54. Id. at 8.
  55. Id. at 8, ch. 19, art. 19.
  56. Haiti: Events of 2020, Human Rights Watch, [].
  57. Jørgensen, supra note 22.
  58. Crane & Mohr, supra note 42.
  59. Id.
  60. Jørgensen, supra note 22.
  61. Crane & Mohr, supra note 42
  62. Id.
  63. Id.
  64. Mali: Inquiry Links Basketball Federation to Sexual Abuse, Human Rights Watch (Sept. 27, 2021), []; Lars Jørgensen, Human Rights Watch: FIBA President Should Go After Sexual Abuse Case in Mali, Play the Game, Sep. 20, 2021, [].
  65. Mali: Inquiry Links Basketball Federation to Sexual Abuse, supra note 64
  66. Id.
  67. Id.
  68. FIFA Boss Cleared of Neglecting ‘Institutionalised Sexual Abuse’ in Mali, NewsDay (Sept. 15, 2021), [].
  69. Mali: Inquiry Links Basketball Federation to Sexual Abuse, supra note 64.
  70. Id.
  71. African Union, Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, 22, art. I(i), July 11, 2003, [].
  72. Id. at art. III(4).
  73. Id. at art. IV(2)(a).
  74. Id. at art. IV(2)(e), art. XXV(a).
  75. U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 4, Feb. 3, 2006, C/MLI/CO/5, [].
  76. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Mali, U.S. Dep’t of State, [].
  77. Id.
  78. Id.
  79. Id.
  80. Mali: Inquiry Links Basketball Federation to Sexual Abuse, supra note 64.
  81. Jørgensen, supra note 64.
  82. Mali: Inquiry Links Basketball Federation to Sexual Abuse, supra note 64.
  83. Letter from Sports & Rights Alliance, Concerns Regarding FIBA Mali Basketball Abuse Investigation to Richard H. McLaren (Sept. 24, 2021), [].
  84. Mali: Inquiry Links Basketball Federation to Sexual Abuse, supra note 64; Jørgensen, supra note 64.
  85. Mali: Inquiry Links Basketball Federation to Sexual Abuse, supra note 64.
  86. FIBA Statement Regarding Independent Integrity Officer Report on Allegations of Systemic Sexual Harassment within the Mali Basketball Federation, (Sept. 14, 2021), [].
  87. Jørgensen, supra note 22.
  88. Id.
  89. See McLaren Independent Mali Basketball Abuse Investigation, McLaren Global Sport Solutions (Sept. 14, 2021), [].
  90. Jørgensen, supra note 22.
  91. See id.
  92. See id.
  93. See FIFPRO Hosts Workshops on Reporting Sexual Abuse for 40 Unions, FIFPRO (Apr. 1, 2021), [].