Record numbers of young women in the UK are seeking help after being forced to undergo virginity tests. Reports have come forward of women being coerced to undergo these controversial tests by their families to “check” their virginity after being forced into arranged marriages. In some cases, the groom’s family demands proof of the bride-to-be’s virginity, leading to families making their daughters undergo these procedures. Victims have described their experiences as inhumane, traumatising, and non-consensual.
Virginity testing is an intrusive vaginal examination that checks if a woman’s hymen is intact. This is to supposedly confirm that the girl has not engaged in any sexual activity prior to marriage. What is baffling is that sex is not the only way in which a woman’s hymen can be broken; everyday physical activities like riding a bicycle can do so as well, which means that these procedures serve no purpose, medical, scientific, or otherwise, other than violating a woman’s dignity and autonomy. They are universally regarded as unscientific and unable to prove if a girl is a virgin or not. But unfortunately, a broken hymen is taken as proof of the girl’s promiscuity, which has led to some girls facing shame and humiliation, estrangement from family, broken engagements, and in some cases, death.
Some people would tend to associate these procedures as occurring in developing countries in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, but such procedures are also offered in some of London’s famous Harley Street clinics. A BBC investigation found numerous private clinics advertising “virginity repair” which also offered virginity tests for between £150 and £300.
Young women increasingly face severe abuse and the possibility of being killed if they refuse to take these tests
Freedom Charity, a UK-based charity that helps victims of forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and honour-based violence, has seen an unprecedented surge in the level of calls to the organisation by young women seeking help after their families have forced them to have virginity tests, according to the charity’s founder Aneeta Prem, in a Sky News report.
“You can pay £300 to £400 and produce a letter or certificate for the potential groom’s family as a ‘badge of honour’”, Ms Prem said. “Families are forcing their daughters, their future daughters-in-laws, to have a test to prove that they have had no sexual relations in the past. Girls that are forced to have a virginity test view it as sexual abuse, as a violation. And the fact is it is often performed in clinics where you have male doctors performing it without female nurses or anyone else there to help.” Ms Prem has urged Home Secretary Priti Patel to ban the practice, which is legal in the UK.
Virginity testing has a nasty history, and in some countries, such as Afghanistan, where virginity testing is preserved by law, young women increasingly face severe abuse and the possibility of being killed if they refuse to take these tests or if they are found to have their hymen broken, leading to an erroneous inference that they must have had pre-marital sex and are “impure”.
That can lead to honour killings, which happen the most in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India if a girl is perceived to be “dishonourable” and has “tarnished” their family’s name and honour by engaging in sexual acts. Their murder is supposed to be a way to “atone” for their acts and keep the family’s dignity intact. As horrible as that sounds, it unfortunately happens, with almost half of the world’s honour killings occurring in India and Pakistan, usually because a girl has done something “indecent” like having, or being suspected of having pre-marital sex.
Virginity testing is another form of gender-based abuse like female genital mutilation, honour killings, and child marriages
While some women from predominantly Asian communities in the UK undergo forced virginity testing, these archaic procedures are not just confined to any particular community or people. Virginity testing is practised in at least 20 countries, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Well-known American rapper T.I has also revealed that he takes his daughter to a clinic every year to check if her hymen is still intact. This procedure, inherently misogynistic and oppressive, is not as insignificant as supposed. The fact that a pseudoscience still has a function and presence in the 21st century shows the precedence that ignorance and backwardness can take over science and humanity.
UK Minister for Patient Safety, Nadine Dorries, said to Sky News: “We are carrying out an intensive review into virginity testing and the findings, recommendations and any proposals for legislation will be published in the Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy in due course.”
Campaigners maintain virginity testing is another form of gender-based abuse like female genital mutilation, honour killings, and child marriages. It is hard to disagree with them. The only way to end virginity testing, apart from outlawing it globally, is increased education and awareness.
If you or anyone you know has been a victim of domestic violence, forced marriage, virginity testing, or other gender-based abuse, you can reach out to freedomcharity.org.uk.