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Maharashtra to make virginity tests a punishable offence; practice still prevalent in UK, Canada, Indonesia and Afghanistan

The Maharashtra government Wednesday announced that forcing a woman to undergo a virginity test will soon become a punishable offence. Certain communities in the state follow a custom whereby a newly-wed woman has to prove that she was virgin prior to marriage. The “test” is a gynaecological examination conducted under the belief that it determines whether a woman has had vaginal intercourse by checking her hymen.

“Virginity test will be considered a form of sexual assault… after consultations with the Law and Judiciary department, a circular will be issued declaring it a punishable offence,” Ranjeet Patil, the Minister of State for Home, said. The minister was speaking after meeting a delegation of some social organisations on the issue.

Representational image. News18

Representational image. News18

The custom is allegedly followed in the Kanjarbhat community of Maharashtra. Meanwhile, some youths from the community have launched an online campaign against “the test”. The movement started by members of ‘Stop the V-Ritual’ WhatsApp group had complained to the police against the caste panchayat in 2017.

However, the practice is not just limited to Maharashtra. As per the WHO, this practice is prevalent in many other countries, including developed nations like the United Kingdom and Canada. Many communities in Indonesia and Afghanistan are also known to follow the custom, which international rights organisations have termed as a form of sexual assault, as per the report.

Global agencies such as the United Nations (UN) Human Rights wing, the UN Women group and the World Health Organization (WHO) have called for a ban on the testing calling it “traumatic and unscientific”.

In a joint statement, UN agencies said that the test has no scientific or clinical basis. “There is no examination that can prove a girl or woman has had sex  and the appearance of girl’s or woman’s hymen cannot prove whether they have had sexual intercourse, or are sexually active or not,” they said.

“Virginity testing” is a violation of the human rights of girls and women, and can be detrimental to women’s and girls’ physical, psychological and social well-being, the agencies said. “Virginity testing” reinforces stereotyped notions of female sexuality and gender inequality; the examination can be painful, humiliating and traumatic; 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, the statement read.

In many settings, such tests are considered part of the assessment of rape survivors which can cause re-victimisation and lead to heightened trauma, the agencies said. The result of this unscientific test can also impact judicial proceedings, often to the detriment of victims and in favour of perpetrators, leading to their acquittal.

In addition, such tests on women prisoners are also common in various parts of the world, the agencies noted. The testing reportedly happens in Brazil, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Jordan, Libya, Malawi and Morocco as well.

In Morocco, these are frequently administered by midwives who lack medical qualifications and thus pose the risk of infections and permanent damage to the assessee’s private parts. According to a report, native activists seek to help women become more aware of their choices in such matters and a part of their campaign includes helping people do away with the idea that virginity should be a precondition for marriage. Such examinations are particularly detrimental to women’s psychological health and sexual well-being when crude instruments are used to conduct them and basic standards of hygiene are ignored, the report mentioned.

Whereas in Afghanistan, more than 200 girls and young women are crammed into dirty prison cells for months and sometimes more than a year for failing the virginity test. When they are eventually released, they face a future defined by shame, exclusion and destitution, The Guardian reported. Virginity testing was banned in Afghanistan in 2016, but police continue to pick up girls and women suspected of having sex, and take them to hospitals or clinics where they are forced to undergo the test, the report says.

According to a 2016 Human Rights Watch report, almost half of all women incarcerated in Afghanistan — and 95 percent of girls in juvenile detention — are there for “moral crimes” such as having sex before marriage. Marie Stopes, an independent organisation with funding from the Swedish government, works with healthcare professionals in every Afghan province to ensure they know about the ban, and implement it.

Meanwhile, in Indonesia, the virginity test first came under the spotlight in 2014 when a report by the Human Rights Watch revealed that women applying to join the Indonesian security forces were checked not only for their health but also for whether they had had any prior sexual experience. Indonesia’s independent National Commission on Violence against Women condemned the virginity test, calling it an act of discrimination against women that violates the Indonesian constitution.

According to the Human Rights Watch, virginity tests are a violation of human rights, according to Article 7 of the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 16 of its Convention against Torture. Surprisingly, Indonesia ratified both treaties, in 2006 and 1998 respectively. Currently, only 5 percent of personnel in both the Indonesian National Armed Forces and the Indonesian National Police are women as many were reportedly discouraged from joining the forces due to the prevalence of this ritual.

Apart from these countries, Canada and the UK also have had well-reported cases of blatant prevalence of this practice, despite international critique and backlash. In London, a young woman testified against her parents for forcing her to undergo the test when they found out she had a boyfriend.

With inputs from PTI

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Updated Date: Feb 07, 2019 17:52:47 IST

Updated: February 7, 2019 — 1:22 pm
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