“I will never report such a case again,” said Farida, a midwife in rural Afghanistan, after a judge humiliated her in a public courtroom for her efforts to document a case of sexual assault involving two child victims.
Farida, a pseudonym, is the only woman with any medical training within 80 kilometers of her remote mountain village. Which is why, about six months ago, a local family turned to her for help when their 6 and 7-year-old daughters complained of abdominal pain. After examining the girls, Farida found they had injuries consistent with sexual assault, and reported this to the district prosecutor’s office.
Over the next two months, the girls were sent three times for so-called “virginity examinations” – invasive procedures Afghan government doctors perform, purportedly to determine whether a woman or girl is a “virgin.” In reality, these tests have no scientific validity and can constitute sexual assault. The World Health Organization has called them degrading and urges health workers not to perform them. For the girls Farida tried to help, the trauma and humiliation of repeated examinations compounded the initial abuse. When the girls’ parents brought them to a clinic for the third time, they sobbed and begged not to be tested again.
The girls’ attacker – a 17-year-old boy – was ultimately convicted of sexual assault. But because the “virginity test” could not prove that penetration had occurred, the judge threatened the midwife, saying, “I could sentence you to imprisonment for false reporting [of rape], but I forgive you this time, as you are a woman, but be careful in the future.” Farida, who told us she had followed appropriate procedure in reporting the girls’ injuries, also faced trouble at home; her neighbors said she had dishonored their community by reporting the case in the first place. As a result, future cases of sexual violence in the village are more likely to go unreported.
In a 2016 report, the Afghan government’s Independent Human Rights Commission called “virginity tests” a form of sexual assault that should be abolished. Afghan officials claim that the government had since banned the examinations, but officials have told Human Rights Watch that the practice remains widespread, and many judges, prosecutors, and police officials told us they routinely order virginity tests.
Until the Afghan government completely ends this abusive practice and addresses rampant discrimination against women and girls in the criminal justice system, victims of sexual assault will remain silent lest they be assaulted all over again.