Exclusive Interview: WHO Looks To End Sexual Assault Culture Of ‘Virginity Tests’
“‘Virginity testing’ has no scientific or clinical basis. There is no examination that can prove a girl or woman has had sex.”
“WHO, UN Human Rights and UN Women have today issued a statement calling for the elimination of so-called “virginity testing”. “Virginity testing”, which is also often referred to as hymen, “two-finger” or per vaginal examination, is an inspection of female genitalia designed to determine whether a woman or girl has had vaginal intercourse,” read an October press release from the World Health Organization (WHO) concerning the disturbing and invasive practice of ‘virginity testing.’
“‘Virginity testing’ 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,” the memo continued.
The message follows a September 2014 clinical handbook released by the WHO in conjunction with United Nations Women and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) entitled Health care for women subjected to intimate partner violence or sexual violence. “There is no place for virginity (or ‘two-finger’) testing; it has no scientific validity. Be very careful not to increase her distress,” the guidelines read.
“It gets [‘virginity testing’] into the textbooks and practices, it can take a while to get rid of an established practice,” said Dr. Claudia Garcia-Moreno a medical officer within the WHO Department of Reproductive Health and Research, leading the organizations work on violence against women when asked how ‘virginity testing’ remains in the medical community despite there not being any scientific validity for the autonomy stripping practice.
“In many societies, women are considered property of their fathers or husbands; their bodies are considered objects of male dominance; and their value is quantifiable by their ‘purity,'” reads the In the Eliminating Virginity Testing: An Interagency Statement, which Dr. Garcia-Moreno led the preparation and oversight of. In South Africa, the practice is seen as ‘preventing promiscuity’ and communities fight to keep ‘virginity testing’ a part of their culture, Dr. Garcia-Moreno stated during the interview.
Also according to the interagency statement listed Afghanistan, Brazil, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Jordan, Libya, Malawi, Morocco, Occupied Palestinian Territories, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Turkey, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and Zimbabwe as countries where the practice has been heavily documented. Dr. Garcia-Moreno would explain that ‘virginity testing’ has spread due to globalization, similar to the practice of female genital mutilation stating that it is a “community issue.”
“We [WHO] don’t collect nor have systematic information on where it is or isn’t practiced,” she explained when asked how common the practice is in the various documented countries. “India in 2014 redid their sexual guidance guideline,” the doctor said when asked about an example of progress against ‘virginity testing’ happening within communities performing the harmful practice.
“The Criminal Law Amendment Act (CLA) 2013 has expanded the definition of rape to include all forms of sexual violence-penetrative (oral, anal, vaginal) including by objects/weapons/fingers and non-penetrative (touching, fondling, stalking, etc.) and recognized [sic] right to treatment for all survivors/victims /victims of sexual violence by the public and private health care facilities. Failure to treat is now an offence [sic] under the law. The law further disallows any reference to past sexual practices of the survivor,” read the Guidelines & Protocols, Medico-legal care for survivors/victims of Sexual Violence released by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare of India.
Dr. Garcia-Moreno explained that while changes are slow to filter through India but it feels “people are beginning to pay attention to the issue.” She would continue, “This issue hasn’t received enough attention [worldwide],” but remained optimistic about the 2014 guidelines in India due to the size and influence of the country. The doctor would also acknowledge organizations in India fighting for women rights are helping spread awareness about the guidelines within the country.
“A Multi-pronged strategy in order to combat virginity testing around the world,” she answered when asked how to go about ending the practice globally. Dr. Garcia-Moreno would go on to explain that reaching out to health professional associations and educators is a key aspect of WHO’s strategy in creating international change on the issue. The thought is “embedded in the health communities” she would respond why it’s necessary for the WHO to reach out to those in the medical field and why those health professionals don’t question the validity of ‘virginity testing.’ The doctor would then reiterate the importance of spreading accurate information to change thought patterns.
“Issues around gender norms of how women and men should behave are underpinning the practices,” she directly stated when asked what she felt was the root cause of ‘virginity testing.’ The doctor would like to see more countries engaging the issue and banning in institutions where it’s practiced whether during incarceration or a job interview process.
Dr. Garcia-Moreno highlighted the media’s role in bringing about positive change on the international level. She explained by reporting on the issue journalists could help bring communities together against ‘virginity testing.’