United Nations agencies oppose virginity tests

The physical and mental ramifications of sexual abuse include but are not limited to traumatic injury, contracting sexually transmitted illnesses, unwanted pregnancies, complications during pregnancy, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, alcohol- and drug abuse and suicide ideation and attempts. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • The UN bodies explained that the practice has no scientific or clinical basis, and that there is no examination that can prove a girl or woman has had sex.
  • Simelela said the examination can be painful, humiliating and traumatic and reinforces stereotyped notions of female sexuality.

The World Health Organisation and the United Nations have warned doctors and communities against performing virginity tests on girls and women, saying the medically unnecessary and harmful procedure violates human rights and ethical standards.

"The practice, more so after rape, leads to re-experience, re-traumatisation and re-victimisation,” WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Family, Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health Nothemba Simelela said.

“Given that these procedures are unnecessary and potentially harmful, it is unethical for doctors or other health providers to undertake them. Such procedures must never be carried out,” she added.

In a joint statement issued during the World Congress of Gynaecology and Obstetrics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Thursday, the organisations called for a ban of practices that are unscientific and violate human rights.

REASON

During virginity testing, also known as the “two-finger” test, a doctor inserts two of his fingers into a woman/girl's vagina to feel the hymen, a thin membrane covering it, which some communities believe remains intact until a girl/woman has sex.

But some women are born without a hymen, and the membrane can also be ruptured if a girl engages in certain sports or uses a tampon.

Women and girls are often forced to undergo virginity tests for various reasons, including requests by parents or potential partners to establish their suitability for marriage, and sometimes even by potential employers — the military, for instance — to determine their eligibility.

The tests have also been performed when women are accused of immorality or have run away from home.

They are mostly performed by doctors, police officers, or community leaders (old women) to assess a girl's/woman's, honour or social value.

TRAUMA

In their statement, the UN bodies explained that the practice has “no scientific or clinical basis”, and that “there is no examination that can prove a girl or woman has had sex”, since the “appearance of girl’s or woman’s hymen cannot prove that she has had sex or is sexually active.

“Many women suffer from adverse short- and long-term physical, psychological and social consequences of this practice. This includes anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.

"In extreme cases, women or girls may attempt suicide or be killed in the name of “honour”, Dr Simelela said.

She noted that the examination can be “painful, humiliating and traumatic” and reinforces stereotyped notions of female sexuality and gender inequality.

“The social expectation that girls and women should remain “virgins” (that is, without having sexual intercourse) is based on stereotyped notions that female sexuality should be curtailed within marriage. This notion is harmful to women and girls globally,” she added.

In Kenya, virginity testing is classified as domestic violence under family protection laws.

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