In January, the Punjabi region of Pakistan outlaws the virginity test for rape survivors. Excluding the virginity test from the criminal investigations in cases of rape, it might pave the way for the ban nationwide. The achievement was possible thanks to the petition filed by journalists, activists, and academics, who stated its medical unreliability.
The Lahore High Court ruled out the practice, affirming its discriminatory basis.
Judge Ayesha A. Malik stated that “virginity testing is highly invasive, having no scientific or medical requirement “ and “It is a humiliating practice, which is used to cast suspicion on the victim, as opposed to focusing on the accused “.
Virginity test is also known as the “two-fingers test”. As the name suggests, it is a manual practice that, depending on the facility the fingers penetrate the female reproductive organ, states whether a woman is sexually active or not.
As the World Health Organization (WHO) declared often the victims are forced to undergo virginity test. In some cases, parents or potential partners might request it to determine the “marriage eligibility” of the woman. In case of sexual violence, virginity testing erroneously expects to determine whether the rape occurred or not.
Eliminating Virginity Testing, WHO, 2018.
The UN agencies’ WHO, OHCHR, and UNWomen, during the World Congress of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) in Rio de Janeiro, issued a joined statement. Drawing from “Eliminating Virginity Testing: An Interagency Statement“ released in 2018, the virginity test reinforced inequality and discrimination against women and girls. It responds to social-cultural norms and stereotypes about female morality and sexuality.
The word comes from Latin, virgo, which means “maiden”, i.e. a person who has not vaginal intercourse. But in the document, it is stated that its definition can vary across cultures, regions, eras, and religions.
“The concept of virginity is not a medical or scientific term; rather, it is a social, cultural and religious construct”.
Virginity Test as Human Rights violation
The rights infringed are:
“the right to not be discriminated based on sex;
the right to life, liberty, and security of person [including physical integrity];
the right to the highest attainable standard of health;
and the rights of the child (when performed on a girl aged under 18 years). “
The 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women states:
“The human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence” (para.96).
It led to the obligation for the governments to “take all appropriate measures to eliminate harmful, medically unnecessary or coercive medical interventions [..]” (para.106H).
This harmful practice, not only causes stigma but also provokes short or long-term psychological consequences.
The consequences are on both mental and physical levels. WHO divides also into short and long-term consequences. Among the short- term and mental consequences, WHO indicates: a violation of physical integrity, autonomy, and privacy; anxiety, panic, depression, guilt. Among the consequences for the body are bleeding and infection from damage to genitalia during the examination; infections because of the unhygienic condition of the exam.
Among the long-term consequences: trauma; isolation from or punishment by family and society; fear of death; unprotected and risky sexual behavior to “preserve” virginity.
The virginity test divides women and girls into two categories: virgin and non-virgin. Because of this label, in some cases, victims have been murdered or attempted suicide in the name of “honor”. This kind of murders are known as “honor killings”, driven by the belief that the woman or the girl brought shame into the family. Moreover, as pointed out in the interagency statement,
“An unfavourable result may also lead to familial and societal condemnation and banishment from the community. Isolated, and without family and community support, these women are at heightened risk of certain forms of violence, including forced prostitution”.
In cases of rape, the test causes additional pain by forcing the victims to experience an act that mimics the violence suffered. Re-experience provokes re-traumatization and re-victimization.
Lastly, the Federal Ministry of Law has raised objections to the practice, declaring its incompatibility with article 14 of the Pakistan Constitution. The article states the right to dignity and that “No person shall be subjected to torture for the purpose of extracting evidence”.
Pakistan is also the country where some important acts were approved: the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act (2016); Domestic Violence (prevention and protection) Act (2013); Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act (2010), and the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act (2010).
Pakistan is ranked by the Global Gender Gap Index 2018 as the sixth most dangerous country in the world for women and the second-worst in the world (ranked 148th) in terms of gender equality.
The NGO White Ribbon Pakistan reports that 47 034 women faced sexual violence, over 15 000 cases of honour crimes were registered, and more than 1 800 cases of domestic violence and over 5 500 kidnappings of women took place between 2004 and 2016.
According to the NGO White Ribbon, around 60 to 70pc of women in Pakistan are suffering from some form of violence and abuse.
Hope remains alive that Pakistan will follow India, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh that outlawed the virginity test in 2013 and 2018. It would be a good step toward a more equal and humane world