Evidence-Based Guiding Note
What exactly is virginity testing?
The inspection of the female genitalia to determine if the examinee has had or has become accustomed to sexual intercourse is known as ‘virginity testing.’ Some tribes conduct ‘virginity testing’ to determine which women or girls are ‘virgins’ (i.e. have not had sexual intercourse). As part of the sexual assault examination of female rape survivors, some medical practitioners perform ‘virginity testing.’
The two most popular ‘virginity testing’ procedures are visual inspection of the hymen for size or rips and two-finger vaginal insertion. The goal of the latter is to assess the size of the introitus or the laxity of the vaginal wall, as well as the existence of the hymen, which is a thin membrane in the vaginal entrance that some cultures believe remains intact until women have sexual intercourse. However, research suggests that this form of testing may not give reliable findings since the existence and characteristics of the hymen vary from woman to woman and the membrane can rupture or stretch during daily activities other than sexual intercourse.
What are the consequences of ‘Virginity Testing’?
‘Virginity testing’ causes physical, physiological and social harm.
Physical harm: In the case of survivors of abuse, ‘virginity exams’ may cause physical injury to the women and girls being evaluated, including worsening existing injuries. Harm may also come from family who, as a result of a perceived ‘failed’ test, may harm or murder the lady or girl in the sake of ‘honour.’ As a result of the ‘virginity testing,’ some women or girls have self-harmed or tried suicide.
Psychological harm: Women and girls who have had ‘virginity tests’ have reported tremendous dread and anxiety before the test, as well as shouting, weeping, and fainting during the exam. Women and girls have also experienced long-term repercussions such as self-hatred, loss of self-esteem, depression, a sense of invasion of privacy, and re-victimization (for survivors of sexual assault).
Social harm: ‘Virginity testing’ is frequently connected with damaging traditional and cultural traditions that subject women and girls to stigma, humiliation, and dishonour in front of their families and communities. Women and girls might face ostracism or even death if they have (or are suspected of having) sexual relations outside of the rules enforced by society, such as before marriage. Furthermore, in certain societies, early marriage is utilised as a type of erroneously understood “protective” strategy to prevent the humiliation and penalties of a girl who had sexual relations before to marriage. As a result, some girls may be married off early in order to prevent any form of sexual activity before to marriage.
Medical Relevance: is ‘Virginity Testing’ a Determinant for Vaginal Intercourse?
According to a 2014 WHO article, the intrusive and demeaning “virginity test” or “two-finger test,” which is still employed in some countries to “verify” whether a woman or girl is a virgin, has “no scientific basis.” “The WHO guideline endorses the generally established medical position that ‘virginity tests’ are meaningless” and give no proof of whether a woman or a girl has had sexual intercourse or has been raped.
In reality, some women are born without a hymen, and the membrane can burst or stretch as a result of other activities like as athletics and weight lifting, among others.
The vaginal hymen is part of the vulva, or external genitalia, and is placed 1-2 cm within the vaginal entrance. Its structure is similar to that of the vagina in that it resembles a ruffled wreath and is made up of folds of mucous tissue that can be firmly or loosely folded. The form, size, colour, and flexibility of the hymen vary across women and during a woman’s life, depending on age, stage of sexual development, and hormone levels.
Talking About ‘Virginity Testing’ with Women and Girls
In some of these Syrian communities, young girls and women contact medical institutions and request ‘virginity testing.’ Many physicians find it difficult to deny when this occurs; they believe that if the request comes from the lady or girl herself, it is their obligation to do the test. It is critical to note that regardless of who demands the examination, the medical (in) validity of the test, as well as the human rights consequences, remain unchanged. Furthermore, the grounds for such a request are rooted in power disparities between men and women, as well as gendered cultural norms.
The individual requesting the test is most likely unable to fully exercise her right to freedom of choice, and the pressure placed on her to establish her ‘virginity’ is a violation of her rights in and of itself.
It is also vital that women and girls are targeted with awareness-raising messages in order to empower them and prevent them from feeling compelled to engage in this destructive activity.
Doctors, midwives, nurses, and psychosocial workers who hear these requests should perform the following:
- Welcome the woman pleasantly, make her feel at ease, and ensure her that everything she says them will be kept private.
- Determine the cause (why the woman thinks she needs such a test). Listening actively and respectfully to the woman or girl may result in the discovery of an abusive or dangerous scenario that must be handled with according to protocol.
- Share with the lady the reasons why the test is not scientifically trustworthy, why it is a practise that must be ended, and specifics about its harmful practises (i.e. creating shame and fear to enforce control over women and girls).
- Do not do the test; instead, assist the woman or girl in identifying alternate solutions (such as referral to case workers and devising safety plans) to the position she is in, ensuring her safety and security at all times.
Because virginity is not a medical condition, a medical examination is not necessary nor beneficial, and it may be both uncomfortable and detrimental.
Helping Women and Girls Who Have Been Subjected to ‘Virginity Testing’
Women and girls who are subjected to ‘virginity testing’ will respond differently to the examination, based on a variety of circumstances such as their age, current coping strategies, and/or social standing. Organizations should explore support interventions on a case-by-case basis and in accordance with the interests of the women or girls. Organizations with continuing case management programmes can guide women and girls who have disclosed having had a “virginity test” through several processes. Medical and emotional care, at a minimum, should be offered to these women and girls, either directly or through referrals to service providers delivering GBV-focused services.