Forced virginity testing still a problem

Forced virginity testing is a serious human rights violation and at its worst it constitutes rape and torture. This is how a group of experts have described the highly controversial practice that is used to determine a woman’s virginity.

In the past few months, Indonesia has made headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons. Late last year, the country unwittingly found itself in the spotlight when it emerged that the national government subjected female applicants for Indonesia’s National Police to “discriminatory and degrading virginity tests.”

When a few months later a local Indonesian MP proposed that all girls should be subjected to virginity tests in order to graduate from school, it sparked an outcry. Shortly after, the deputy head of the district announced that the proposal had been scrapped.

Sadly, Indonesia is far from the only place where forced virginity testing is still happening despite the practice being illegal in many states.

Recent cases in Egypt and Afghanistan reaffirm that this gruesome practice is flourishing in many countries around the world.

School girls no longer need to worry about virginity testing. (Courtesy of Ikhlasul Amal , via Flickr Creative Commons)

Indonesian school girls. (Courtesy of Ikhlasul Amal, via Flickr Creative Commons)

For those unfamiliar with the practice it may seem like a simple intervention, but according to the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) – a group of more than 30 of the world’s leading forensic experts – forcibly conducted virginity testing is likely to cause severe and lasting psychological symptoms and disabilities that remain over time.

“The practice can cause women to feel intense humiliation, self-disgust, and worthlessness, especially since examinations are likely to involve other forms of abuse such as unconsented touching or groping, as well as threats, coercion or force,” the group said in a recent statement.

The IFEG also pointed that the practice has zero scientific value and at is worst it constitutes torture and rape.

“Health professionals have no medical foundation for conducting virginity examinations,” it said.

The IFEG is not the only group of experts condemning forced virginity testing. In December last year, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) joined the growing opposition against the tests, calling on states to end the ‘degrading, discriminatory, and unscientific “virginity testing” of women and girls.’

So why do states continue to carry out these tests?

Most experts agree that the larger issue at stake here is the perception of and the treatment of women in these countries. In some instances forced virginity testing has the effect or purpose of controlling women and denying them their rights.

“Prejudice and negative stereotypes against women and girls are passed off as medical science by many doctors who wrongly believe they can determine a woman’s virginity,” explained women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch, Liesl Gerntholtz.

While there is a growing focus on what we know as sexual violence against women, forced virginity testing is still just one issue on a long list of overlooked violations against women and girls.

There is hope, however, that the highly publicised cases in Indonesia and Egypt will change this.

Meanwhile, Secretary-General of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), Victor Madrigal-Borloz has reminded doctors of their responsibility to respect human rights.

“As a movement made of health professionals, we are in a key position to condemn forced virginity testing, often carried out by health professionals in a clear violation of professional ethics and international human rights.”

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