New policy will stop clinics and hospitals from performing examinations that lead to imprisonment and exclusion – writes Annie Kelly, The Guardian, July 5, 2018
In a prison in the Balkh province of Afghanistan, more than 200 girls and young women are crammed into dirty prison cells. Many have been here for months – and some for more than a year. When they are eventually released, they face a future defined by shame, exclusion and destitution.
Their crime is that they all failed a virginity test performed by a health professional at a clinic or hospital.
Last year, under increasing pressure from human rights campaigners, Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, promised that forensic virginity tests – invasive examinations to check whether the hymen is intact – would be banned as an official procedure. The tests nonetheless remain widespread, and the implications for girls and women who are deemed to have failed them are both immediate and catastrophic.
“I’ve been inside a jail in Balkh province and the majority of those who have failed virginity tests and found themselves locked up are between 13 and 21 years old,” said Farhad Javid, country director for Marie Stopes International in Afghanistan.
“What I saw there was so upsetting, the conditions were so bad, more than 12 young girls to each very small cell. And even though they are supposed to only be in there for three months, many are kept for a year or a year and a half. When they get out, their families have disowned them; they are in a very precarious position.”
Condemned by the World Health Organization as degrading, discriminatory and unscientific, the practice of virginity testing has been widely used to ascertain whether a woman has committed adultery or had sex before marriage.
Now, after a long and bitter fight, Marie Stopes Afghanistan, along with a coalition of civil society and religious leaders, believes a major breakthrough has been secured in the form of an official public health policy that will stop the practice from being performed in every clinic and hospital in Afghanistan.
With funding from the Swedish government, the organisation will work with doctors and nurses in health facilities in every Afghan province to make sure the new policy is understood and communicated.
“It’s been a very long struggle, but we see this as a major breakthrough because public health policy in Afghanistan is strong and respected both in government and Taliban areas, it goes above sharia law and we have expectations that it will be respected and implemented across all provinces,” said Javid.
Virginity testing was banned in 2016, but Javid said police have continued to pick up girls and women suspected of having sex, and take them to hospitals or clinics where they are forced to undergo a virginity test.
“We hope this means that, when the police or a family bring in a woman or girl and demand that they perform a virginity test, it will no longer be a procedure that is conducted by health professionals – and that, in this way, it will help shift cultural attitudes among law enforcement and in wider society as well.”
The next step, added Javid, is to get the thousands of girls and women believed to be imprisoned as a result of enforced virginity tests freed and exonerated.
According to a 2016 Human Rights Watch report, almost half of all women incarcerated in Afghanistan – and 95% of girls in juvenile detention – are there for “moral crimes” such as sex before marriage.
“It’s very difficult to know exactly how many are locked up because of this,” said Javid. “We also have no idea the number of women and girls who are being killed or harmed because, after marriage, their husband or his family decide that she wasn’t a virgin. But getting virginity testing banned in public health institutions is an important step and we start from here.”