IN JANUARY, news broke that South African mayor Dudu Mazibuko has implemented the “Maiden’s Bursary Award,” an educational scholarship given to girls who pass a “virginity test.” Mazibuko claims that the scholarships and tests will help reduce unwanted pregnancy and the spread of HIV in the KwaZulu-Natal province, which has staggering rates of teenage pregnancy and HIV infection.
Virginity testing is a medically unsound and morally reprehensible practice in which women’s and girls’ hymens are examined for signs of sexual activity. It is a long-standing tradition among the Zulu ethnic group of South Africa, a fact that suggests it is not an effective measure for preventing pregnancy or HIV transmission. While the rhetoric of prevention is employed today to justify the practice, it is still connected with the association between “purity” and women’s worth. Several women who are voluntarily involved in the public testing ceremonies, called Reed Dances, told BBC their confirmed status as virgins bolsters their self-esteem and self-respect as women.
Virginity testing is not only implemented in a small pocket of the world; many countries conduct such tests, which prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to condemn virginity testing in 2014. Virginity testing has existed throughout history in various forms, such as looking for blood on the sheets after first marital intercourse and examinations of the poorly-understood hymen, including the “two finger” test in which the examiner inserts his or her fingers into a woman’s vagina.
Today there are several examples of countries performing virginity tests for the purposes of gathering evidence for legal cases involving rape accusations. Human Rights Watch reports that some northern Iraqi women who were captured as sex slaves by ISIS in 2014 and escaped to Kurdistan were subjected to invasive virginity testing by Kurdistani officials; unmarried women’s test results could be used by courts as evidence of rape. Only in January of this year did a judge tell Human Rights Watch that they were no longer performing this test, which violates UN human rights and best practice standards.
Female protesters who were jailed during Egypt’s Arab Spring reported being subjected to virginity testing while in prison. A high-ranking general told CNN that the tests were performed “to prove that the girls were not virgins so that they would not accuse the army of rape later on.” In 2011, the Cairo Administrative Court declared virginity testing illegal in the country, but in late 2013 and early 2014, new accusations emerged from female protesters who had been detained during more recent anti-military protests.
Virginity testing in modern history is not exclusively linked to Eastern countries. In the 1970s, British immigration officials (based mostly in India) subjected at least 80 migrant women seeking marital visas for the UK to virginity tests in an attempt to ensure they were coming to the country for that purpose.
Legal explanations for virginity testing have no grounding. Not only do these tests involve subjecting women to unwanted vaginal penetration – which is to say, rape – but they are based on a misunderstanding of the female anatomy, specifically the hymen. Women’s hymens are rarely completely intact even before they have sex, and openings in the membrane can be stretched by a number of activities, not just intercourse. A visual inspection or a penetrative exam cannot prove whether or not a woman or girl has had intercourse.
Misconceptions about the hymen are in no way limited to Eastern cultures; many young American women and girls fear their first time having sex, as they think it will inevitably be painful and accompanied by bleeding. In October of 2015, a 22-year-old American woman made headlines for presenting her father with a virginity certificate at her wedding. She had been seen by a gynecologist who supposedly verified she was a virgin by examining her hymen.
Legal and health explanations are not the only ones used for implementing virginity testing today. The historical association between women’s sexual status and their moral standing persists. For decades, Indonesian women wanting to join the police force or military, or those wishing to marry military officers, have been subjected to virginity testing. Time reports the explanation given by women’s rights activist and medical anthropologist Lies Marcoes: “The more the public thinks the nation’s morals are in disarray, the stronger is the pressure on women to guard the symbol of purity, which is measured with the most ancient parameter that lies in the subconsciousness of patriarchal men: ‘virginity.’”
In some places, virginity testing continues to be conducted before weddings to determine women’s “purity.” In 2009 and 2013, the Indian government was accused of performing virginity and pregnancy tests on more than 550 brides-to-be in total. In Afghanistan, some women are punished harshly if they don’t produce blood on the bedsheets during their first sexual encounter with a husband, and some families demand invasive virginity testing before marriage. Human Right Watch reports that women accused of “moral crimes,” like running away or consensual sex outside of marriage, are sometimes subjected to testing in Afghanistan. In Sweden, a country hailed for advancing women’s rights, an undercover investigation in 2015 found evidence that some doctors in the country perform virginity tests on girls at the request of families for religious reasons.
The rationale for virginity testing is deeply rooted in many cultural and religious beliefs, as well as misinformation about the body. Promoting a more accurate understanding of women’s anatomy may help reduce cases of virginity testing in some areas, but deeper cultural beliefs – about women as sexual gatekeepers, women’s position as moral symbol of nations, and the connection between women’s sexual status and worth – must be worked against if this form of sexual assault is to be effectively eradicated.
The WHO promotes the protection of human rights in medical practice, and The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) works to implement comprehensive sex education around the globe. Human Rights Watch researches and reports on human rights abuses internationally, and uses its influence to advocate for policy reforms.