A new policy in Afghanistan promises to bar government health workers from engaging in the abusive practice of forcing women and girls to undergo invasive and medically meaningless vaginal and anal exams to determine whether they are “virgins.” The policy was announced by the Ministry of Public Health in July.
“Virginity examinations” are a routine part of criminal proceedings in Afghanistan. When women or girls are accused of “moral crimes” such as sex outside of marriage, police, prosecutors, and judges regularly send them to government doctors. After examining them, the doctors submit reports reaching conclusions about whether they are “virgins,” also often drawing more detailed – and often damning – conclusions about their sexual histories. These reports are used in court as evidence and have led to long prison terms for many women.
These examinations are invasive, humiliating, conducted without meaningful – or sometimes any – consent, and can constitute sexual assault. There is also another problem: they are scientifically invalid.
Many people mistakenly believe that virginity can be determined because the hymen is broken when a woman or girl has sexual intercourse for the first time. This is simply not true. Some girls are born without a hymen. Hymens often break during daily non-sexual activities, and some hymens remain intact after sexual intercourse. The World Health Organization has said virginity exams have no scientific validity and that health workers should never conduct them.
Ending “virginity exams” in Afghanistan will take genuine political will by the Afghan government – something too often absent in the past. An earlier order by President Ashraf Ghani to cease the exams was widely ignored. For change to happen, health workers need to be obligated to comply, and police, prosecutors, and judges will have to accept that exams will not be conducted and the reports will not be available as evidence.
Ending “virginity exams” should be part of broader reform regarding the treatment of women in the justice system. The government should decriminalize consensual sex between adults and ensure that the justice system distinguishes between consensual sex and rape. Too often in Afghanistan, rape victims are treated as criminals. The 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women was designed to protect women, but has largely been a broken promise.
Wholesale reform is needed. But ending “virginity exams” would be a good start.