UN organisations call for ban on ‘virginity tests’

Many women suffer short- and long-term physical, psychological and social consequences of virginity testing.
Tuesday 18/12/2018
A long way to go. A Moroccan bride from Imilchil, a small village in Morocco’s Atlas mountains. (AP)
A long way to go. A Moroccan bride from Imilchil, a small village in Morocco’s Atlas mountains. (AP)

CASABLANCA - The World Health Organisation, UN Human Rights and UN Women called on several countries in many parts of the world, including the Middle East and North Africa region, to eliminate “virginity tests” before marriage, saying the practice reflects gender discrimination against women.

“Virginity testing — a gynaecological examination conducted under the belief that it determines whether a woman or girl has had vaginal intercourse — must end,” the three organisations said in a statement.

Virginity tests have been documented in at least 20 countries. The practice has been noticed in the last few years in European countries with sizeable Muslim populations, such as Belgium and the United Kingdom.

Virginity tests have been documented in at least 20 countries,  including Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Jordan and Morocco.

“In a global call to eliminate violence against women and girls everywhere, this medically unnecessary, and often times painful, humiliating and traumatic practice must end,” said the NGOs.

They stressed that the concept of “virginity” is a social, cultural and religious construct that reflects gender discrimination against women and girls.

“The social expectation that girls and women should remain ‘virgins’ (i.e. 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,” they said.

A Moroccan gynaecologist, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of his work, said virginity tests were done in public hospitals only upon request from the public prosecutor in rape cases.

However, he said the procedure was common in the private sector when the couple agreed to do it before marriage.

“Rather than ask for a virginity test, the couple should opt for a thorough check-up against sexually transmitted diseases or hepatitis B,” the doctor said.

The NGOs warned that virginity tests were not only a violation of women’s and girls’ human rights but in cases of rape could cause additional pain and mimic the act of sexual violence, leading to a victim reliving the experience and becoming further traumatised.

The virginity test is a popular practice among some Moroccans despite the Westernised lifestyle in the North African country. Some women opt for various methods to try to meet their fiance’s demand.

“Many girls resort to hymenoplasty in major cities to restore their hymen,” the doctor said. “Others insert blood capsules or chicken blood on their wedding night before the sexual intercourse. The list goes on.”

Bouchaib from Berchid region, 20km from Casablanca, said the tradition in their family is that the mother of the groom leaves the room of the married couple with the bride’s white trousers stained in blood to prove her virginity to guests.

“I know it’s a disgusting practice but it’s about the groom’s pride,” said Bouchaib.

The doctor said that Moroccan customs and attitudes need to be changed through raising awareness among men that some women could be born without hymen besides the more important social and economic issues that should be looked into other than virginity.

The NGOs said that many women suffer short- and long-term physical, psychological and social consequences of virginity testing. Some attempt suicide or are killed in the name of “honour.”

They called for an urgent need to raise awareness among health professionals and communities of the detrimental effects of performing this test on women and girls, its lack of scientific validity and the need to eliminate its use.

They urged governments to enact and enforce laws that ban virginity testing.

Moroccan lawyer Zakaria Mrini said several divorce cases occurred because of the virginity issue.

“Many guys file for divorce after finding out that the wife is not virgin,” said Mrini, adding that there is no law that stipulates the woman must be virgin before marriage.

“Customs and traditions besides religion are key players in such divorce cases. The husband has to legally request that his wife should go for an examination to prove her non-virginity, while she has the right to accept or refuse the request,” he said, adding that the practice “is discriminatory” because men are not subject to virginity tests.

As shocking and archaic as the method may be, the report noted that virginity test is still practised in India, Brazil, Afghanistan, South Africa, Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Northern Ireland, Jordan, and several other countries.

In order to put an end to this form of testing, the NGOs suggested that efforts would have to be made at national and international levels, especially focusing on legislation and policies to help women.