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The United Nations is fighting to end virginity testing

A group of United Nations agencies has issued a joint statement calling for the ban of misleading and damaging tests meant to ‘assess the virginity’ of women and girls, a common practice in at least 20 countries.

Virginity testing is a controversial practice that aims to determine whether a girl has had sexual intercourse or not. What is also referred to as “hymen”, “two-finger” or “per vagina” examination is a misguided gynaecological inspection of female genitalia carried out to allegedly determine whether a woman or girl has had penetrative intercourse.

Virginity is valued in some cultures and is used to ascertain a girl’s ‘worth’. Those who are sexually active are seen as being “impure” and “dishonourable”. It is also ironically used to evaluate a sexual assault, even though it inflicts further trauma. Virginity testing is practiced globally and is documented in at least 20 countries, spanning all regions, even though medical experts have stated it is unreliable and has severe repercussions.

In a global call for the elimination of violence against women and girls everywhere, the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR), UN Women and the World Health Organisation (WHO) said in a statement issued during the World Congress of Gynecology and Obstetrics: “This medically unnecessary, and often times painful, humiliating and traumatic practice must end.”

The UN agencies 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”, as the “appearance of girl’s or woman’s hymen cannot prove whether they have had sexual intercourse or are sexually active or not”.

The statement went on to denounce the practice as “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 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.”

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The above also refers to the fact that the practice is also used to assess survivors of rape and sexual assault – despite mimicking the actual act, thereby “exacerbating survivors’ sense of disempowerment and causing re-victimisation”.

Aside from its unreliability, the test can also impact on judicial proceedings in favour of perpetuators of sexual violence, including those in state facilities that use it on at-risk women such as women prisoners and other wards of the state.

Dr Princess Nothema Simelela, Assistant Director-General for Family, Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health at the WHO, says, “Health professionals can be great agents for change. With support from health systems and governments, they can recognise that ‘virginity testing’ has no medical or clinical basis, refuse to carry out the harmful practice, and educate the public about this. In doing so, they are upholding the Hippocratic oath of “first do no harm” and safeguarding the human rights of girls and women in their care.”

Ending this practice will also end the fall-out for girls and women who “fail” and are consequently deemed “unclean”. These girls and women face consequences such as so-called “honour” killings, abuse, isolation, financial penalty, familial shame and poor marriage prospects. Inversely, girls and women declared “clean” and “pristine” are susceptible to rape and sexual assault due to bizarre cultural beliefs, for example, that HIV infection can be cured by having sex with a virgin.

There can be no doubt that the test itself leaves women and girls vulnerable and stripped of their human rights, psychological wellbeing and dignity. Hopefully the UN agencies’ call will not fall on deaf ears.

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