A protester holds a placard during a protest in New Delhi, on July 29, 2009.

(New York) – Governments should immediately carry out a new United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation to end degrading, discriminatory, and unscientific “virginity testing” of women and girls, Human Rights Watch said.

The recommendation, included in a November 2014 WHO handbook, “Health care for women subjected to intimate partner violence or sexual violence,” states that health workers should never use “virginity tests.” The handbook emphasizes respect for a woman’s rights and comfort, and makes clear that any physical exam should be conducted only with informed consent and focused on determining the nature of medical care required. It concludes that the invasive and degrading “virginity test” or the “two-finger’ test” - still used in some countries to “prove” whether a woman or girl is a virgin - has “no scientific validity.”

“The WHO handbook upholds the widely accepted medical view that ‘virginity tests’ are worthless,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Health authorities worldwide should end the practice of ‘virginity testing’ in all cases and prohibit health workers from perpetuating this discriminatory and degrading practice.”

While the WHO handbook focuses on health care after sexual violence and domestic violence, it has broader relevance for other instances in which “virginity testing” is used, Human Rights Watch said. These include employment discrimination and prosecutions for consensual sex between adults outside of marriage.

The use of “virginity testing” has been documented in a number of countries worldwide, Human Rights Watch said. For example, in Afghanistan, authorities routinely subject women and girls accused of “moral crimes,” such as “running away,” zina (consensual sex outside of marriage), and attempted zina, to “virginity tests.” Women accused of these crimes are usually fleeing violence in the home, including forced marriage.

This unacceptable procedure may be performed two or three times on the same woman because of bureaucratic policies or mistakes, and is sometimes also imposed on women accused of other crimes such as robbery and assault. The results of these “virginity tests” may carry great weight with judges, contributing to many wrongful convictions. Rape survivors often do not report the offense or seek assistance because of the risk that it will be conflated with zina, which officials believe can be corroborated through “virginity tests.”

“‘Virginity testing’ is a form of gender-based violence and discrimination,” Gerntholtz said. “Authorities exploit this unscientific and degrading ‘test’ even though a woman’s sexual history has absolutely no bearing on whether she is qualified for a job or determining whether she was raped.”

In the Middle East and North Africa, women can be subjected to “virginity testing” in various circumstances, including at the behest of their families. In late 2011, several female protesters in Egypt who had been arrested reported that a military doctor subjected them to “virginity testing.” An Egyptian administrative court ruled that conducting virginity tests on women in detention was “an illegal act and a violation of women’s rights and an assault on their dignity.” However, in March 2012, the only military doctor charged in the “virginity tests” trial was acquitted. Despite the court ruling, the illegal practice is still used in Egyptian detention facilities. Libya and Jordan have also used such “tests.” 

In Indonesia, the national police incorporate “virginity tests” as part of recruitment procedures for women candidates even though senior women police officers have objected and demanded that the test be banned. Proposals to introduce “virginity tests” for school girls in Indonesia have also been repeatedly raised.

In 2014, the Indian Health Ministry issued a new protocol for post-rape medical care clarifying that health workers treating and examining rape survivors should not conduct the two-finger test. However, the protocol has yet to be systematically put into operation across the country.

“Virginity tests” have been recognized internationally as a violation of human rights, particularly the prohibition against “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” under article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and article 16 of the Convention against Torture, both of which many countries have ratified.

The UN Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that monitors compliance with the covenant, states in a General Comment that the aim of article 7 is “to protect both the dignity and the physical and mental integrity of the individual.” Article 7 relates not only to acts that cause physical pain, but also to acts that cause mental suffering to the victim. Coerced virginity testing compromises the dignity of women, and violates their physical and mental integrity.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and other human rights treaties prohibit discrimination against women. “Virginity testing” constitutes discrimination against women as it has the effect or purpose of denying women their rights on a basis of equality with men.

“Prejudice and negative stereotypes against women and girls are passed off as medical science by many doctors who wrongly believe they can determine a woman’s virginity,” Gerntholtz said. “Governments and doctors should abide by the WHO handbook to ensure that they conduct themselves ethically, respect women’s privacy and dignity, and take steps to educate their peers to end the scourge of ‘virginity testing.’”