BY: KATIE DOBOSZ KENNEY
In the next two years, we will celebrate the anniversaries of two global landmarks of women’s advancement: 2020 will mark the 20th anniversary of United Nations Security Council’s adoption of historic Resolution 1325, which formalized the importance of women and peace and security, along with committing to the protection of women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence during conflict; the second is the 25th anniversary of the 4th World Conference on Women, addressing women’s autonomy over their bodies. And though the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp has further globalized and galvanized the conversation surrounding reporting sexual assault and violence, the reality is that sexual and gender-based violence is far from being eradicated. It is still employed as a weapon of war, control, and humiliation, especially in, but not limited to regions of intractable violence.
The continued fight to end sexual and gender-based violence is directly connected to the creation of meaningful change through open dialogue and information-sharing, even when uncomfortable, especially regarding the perceptions of women in sexual culture and their reproductive health, which influences the realities of sexual and gender-based violence that disproportionately affect women. This year, three UN agencies took a hard look at a seldom discussed aspect of sexual and gender-based violence- virginity testing.
On October 17, 2018, the World Health Organization, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, and UN Women published Eliminating Virginity Testing: an Interagency Statement, highlighting a mechanism of sexual and gender-based discrimination in which women and girls are examined to determine whether they have had vaginal intercourse, and are thereby no longer “virgins.” The report was published as a result of reported occurrences in over 20 countries around the world, most notably in the medical examination for female candidates of the Indonesian police force and all branches of military service.
Virginity testing determines whether a woman has engaged in vaginal intercourse through a “two-finger” examination of the hymen and vaginal cavity. The test occurs most commonly in communities where women and girls are viewed as the property of the families or husbands and where their worth is inextricably linked to their purity and sexual repression. It also occurs as a means to humiliate “political activists, detainees, and prisoners.”
Eliminating Virginity Testing wastes no time in condemning the use of virginity testing by shedding light on the populations most vulnerable to the practice, assessing the harmful effects, and reaffirming the act as a gross violations of human rights. The report seeks to debunk the practice of virginity testing as ‘scientific’, alongside equipping healthcare professionals in the affected regions with the tools to end the practice.
An institutionalized example of virginity testing is for female candidates of the Indonesian police force and all branches of the Indonesian military. According to Human Rights Watch, this practice was still upheld despite global and local calls to President Joko Widodo to abolish it. The testing is often masqueraded as a pregnancy screening, a form of discrimination in itself. But it clearly stems from a more insidious view of women, as according to Indonesian military spokesman Fuad Basya, “If they are no longer virgins, if they are naughty, it means their mentality is not good.” The testing is still used despite violating two documents ratified by Indonesia, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention and the Convention against Torture, even as Indonesia comes under scrutiny for their declining number of women UN peacekeepers, military personnel, and police officers.
Morally reprehensible and a wholly unscientific violation of human rights, virginity testing is a perpetuation of archaic views of women, their sexuality, and their sexual health in which the worth of women and girls is tied to their sexual purity, or their virginity, a concept rarely applied to their male counterparts. The test, often administered by healthcare professionals, has both short and long-term mental and physical consequences including but not limited to shame, bodily harm, ostracism, and trauma (see chart below).
Chart from Eliminating Virginity Testing: An Interagency Statement
Though the report, in its entirety, explores the root causes of virginity testing, as well as a comprehensive breakdown of all the ways the practice violates the human rights of woman and girls all over the world, the most illuminating and important section addresses the global strategies to eliminate virginity testing. Divided into three sections, the conclusion provides tangible and contextually specific strategies for healthcare providers, policymakers, and communities to combat virginity testing through education and engagement at both the government and grassroots level. Since healthcare professionals are often asked to administer these tests, they are at the frontlines of combating and eventually eliminating the practice, through educating themselves and the communities they serve with accurate and scientific information.
The Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), explains that when women are granted equal rights and liberties, including political, economic, and social, and the more society can be educated to honor and respect the rights of women’s sexual and reproductive health, the closer we will be to that equality. Though reframing the global conversation about women and girls and their sexuality, at times, seems like an uphill battle, there are tangible and accessible actions that can be taken by the global community. Healthcare professionals, educators, legislators, and families can and must come together to create and foster environments in which the health and sexual rights of women and girls are empowered and protected on equal footing with all other human rights.
Katie Dobosz Kenney holds an MS in Global Affairs from New York University with a concentration in Peacebuilding. An educator for almost 10 years, Katie had developed global and peace education curricula in Florida, Mississippi, and Timor-Leste. Katie currently works as a graduate program administrator at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and has co-led study abroad programs to South Africa and the UAE.
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