(Jakarta) – International military physicians convening in Indonesia should urge President Joko Widodo to abolish discriminatory and invasive “virginity tests” for female recruits and fiancées of military officers in the Indonesian armed forces, Human Rights Watch said today. The International Committee of Military Medicine (ICMM), a Belgium-based intergovernmental organization dedicated to fostering “professional collaboration between members of the Armed Forces Medical Services of all States” will convene its world conference in Bali on May 17-22, 2015.
The Indonesian military should immediately end the use of so-called virginity tests, which violate the prohibition of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment under international human rights law.
“The Indonesian armed forces should recognize that harmful and humiliating ‘virginity tests’ on women recruits does nothing to strengthen national security,” said Nisha Varia, women’s rights advocacy director. “President Joko Widodo should set the military straight and immediately abolish the requirement and prevent all military hospitals from administering it.”
Human Rights Watch sent letters to the ICMM and 16 member countries asking them to urge the Indonesian armed forces to cease all “virginity tests.” A Human Rights Watch letter to Maj. Gen. Daniel Tjen, the general surgeon of the Indonesian National Armed Forces, received no response.
Virginity testing is a form of gender-based violence and is a widely discredited practice. In November 2014, the World Health Organization issued guidelines that stated, “There is no place for virginity (or ‘two-finger’) testing; it has no scientific validity.”
Indonesia’s coordinating minister for politics, law, and security, Tedjo Edhi, acknowledged that the military requires the tests on November 18, 2014, the day that Human Rights Watch issued a report about “virginity testing” for female National Police candidates. Maj. Gen. Fuad Basya, the armed forces spokesman, said that the Indonesian military has conducted “virginity testing” on female recruits for even longer than the police, without specifying when the practice began. Human Rights Watch research found that all branches of the military – air force, army, and navy – have used the test for decades and also extended the requirement to the fiancées of military officers.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 11 women – military recruits and fiancées of military officers – who had undergone the test at military hospitals in Bandung, Jakarta, or Surabaya; a female officer at the military health center; and a doctor who worked in a military hospital in Jakarta. Applicants and fiancées who were deemed to have “failed” were not necessarily penalized, but all of the women described the test as painful, embarrassing, and traumatic.
All of the women interviewed told Human Rights Watch that it was required of all other women applying to enter the military or planning to marry military officers. They said that the only women excluded were those with “powerful connections” or who bribed the military doctors who administered the tests. Human Rights Watch found that the testing included the invasive “two-finger test” to determine whether female applicants’ hymens are intact. Finger test findings are scientifically baseless because an “old tear” of the hymen or variation of the “size” of the hymenal orifice can be due to reasons unrelated to sex.
A military doctor at a military hospital in Jakarta told Human Rights Watch that the test is part of the mandatory military exam. It is given early in the recruitment process as part of the applicants’ physical exam. The doctor, who requested anonymity due to concerns about reprisals, said the tests occur in military hospitals across the country with female military applicants tested en masse in large halls divided into curtain-separated examination rooms. Female military physicians typically conduct the test, although one woman told Human Rights Watch that a man administered the procedure on her.
Officers who wish to marry require a letter of recommendation from their commanders, who only issue such letters upon confirmation that the respective officer’s fiancée has undergone a medical examination, including the “virginity test,” at a military hospital.
Female military recruits said that military officers informed them that the tests were crucial to preserving “the dignity and the honor of the nation.” A retired air force officer wondered how she could “defend the honor of our nation if we cannot defend our own honor” by undergoing “virginity tests.” Two military wives said that they were told that “virginity tests” helped stabilize “military families,” in which the husbands often travel for months.
Indonesia’s National Police responded to the Human Rights Watch exposure of police use of “virginity testing” by supporting the practice. A senior police official, Inspector General Moechgiyarto, on November 18 confirmed the requirement, defending it as a means of ensuring “high moral standards.” He suggested to the media that those failing the test were prostitutes.
However, other government officials have publicly supported ending the practice. In December, Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo announced that his ministry will stop administering “virginity tests” to women aspiring to be civil servants. At a parliamentarian hearing on January 21, 2015, Health Minister Nila Moeloek promised to raise the issue at a cabinet meeting. Widodo has so far not spoken publicly about “virginity testing” by government agencies.
Human Rights Watch has advocated ending “virginity testing” in other countries, including Egypt, India, and Afghanistan. These procedures 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 and article 16 of the Convention against Torture, both of which Indonesia has ratified.
“The Indonesian armed forces should immediately stop the discriminatory, arbitrary, and gender-based violence of so-called virginity tests,” Varia said. “The ICMM should make clear to the Indonesian military that this abusive practice has no place in a job application process or an individual’s choice of whom to marry and should not be inflicted under a veneer of ‘military medicine.’”
Indonesian Women Speak Out on “Virginity Testing” in the Indonesian Armed Forces:
In 2013, I applied to join the military academy in Bandung. All of the recruits needed to undertake medical examinations. One of them is the “virginity test.” What shocked me was finding out that the doctor who was to perform the test was a man. I had mixed feelings. I felt humiliated. It was very tense. It’s all mixed up. I hope the future medical examination excludes “virginity test.” It’s against the rights of every woman.
—A female military academy applicant subjected to a “virginity test” in 2013 in Bandung
I initially learned from other physicians performing the “virginity test” in our hospital. The women were positioned like women giving birth. In 2008, I administered the test myself. Those young women were totally unwilling to be positioned in such an opened position. It took an effort to make them willing to [undergo the virginity test]. It was not [just] a humiliating act anymore. It was a torture. I decided not to do it again.
—A female physician in a military hospital in Jakarta
My husband is a navy officer. We married in 2008. [Prior to our marriage] I took the medical examination that included the so-called virginity test. Officers’ fiancées could usually escape the humiliating test [because] most of their fathers are admirals and generals, if not colonels. But my husband does not come from a military family. I took the test. Now I know many military wives. When the policewoman’s story appeared, we began to trade stories about bribes being paid to pass the test in military hospitals. Sometimes the young officers paid some money to have their fiancées declared to have intact hymens. But there were also sympathetic doctors who asked the young women whether their fiancés are going to marry them if their hymens are declared to be torn. [In such cases] the doctor usually writes “hymen intact.”
—A military wife subjected to a “virginity test” in 2008
My fiancé was then working as a dentist in a naval base in Surabaya. When we’re about to marry, he asked for permission from his commander. The [permission] letter says I must take several medical tests. I underwent the test in Surabaya, but also in Jakarta. Both of them were in naval hospitals. [The tests] ranged from psychological tests to a medical examination. The rationale was economic: the military wants healthy couples. It also included the “two-finger test.” I thought I was a virgin, so I did not mind. I passed the test and we got married. It was embarrassing, but who I am to oppose it? Military men often travel away from home. They should trust their wives.
—A military wife subjected to a “virginity test” in 1991 in Surabaya
I graduated from a teachers’ training college in Semarang in 1988. I decided to join the navy and took the [applicants’ entrance] test. It included the virginity test. It’s humiliating. Now I am still working in the navy. I was surprised when watching TV and seeing policewomen protesting the test. I salute them. The military women are not as outspoken as the policewomen. It’s impossible to have active military women to oppose the test. I personally agree that we have to stop the test. But I am just a major. Who will listen to a female major in the navy?
—A female military officer subjected to a “virginity test” in Jakarta in 1988
Four years after I took the test, I married my fiancé. Like most normal newlyweds, we took a honeymoon in Bali and we wanted to make love. But my body was so stiff. I cannot open my legs. I cried the whole night. We could only have sex [for the first time] two months later. It was because of the trauma that I had with that “virginity test.”
—A retired air force officer subjected to a “virginity test” in 1984