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Breakthrough could lead to an end to virginity testing in Afghanistan

Monday 23 July 2018 MSI Reproductive Choices Policy and advocacy, Fragile states Afghanistan

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A new policy that will stop clinics and hospitals performing virginity tests that lead to the imprisonment and exclusion of Afghan women has been approved.

Despite bring condemned by the World Health Organisation as “degrading, discriminatory and unscientific”, the practice of virginity testing in Afghanistan has been widely used to check whether a woman has committed a “moral crime” such as sex before marriage. Each year it leads to hundreds of girls facing public shame, prison and even becoming victims of so-called honour killings.   

Marie Stopes Afghanistan’s country director Farhad Javid said:  

“It has been like this through the history of Afghanistan. If the girl does not bleed on her wedding night or she is seen alone with a boy she is taken to hospital and forcibly examined. They put their hands on her and open the vagina. They don’t know what they are doing. It’s abuse.  

"Even if she is a virgin, the director of the hospital may force her to sleep with him and if the decision goes against her she will be thrown in jail. The only crime they have committed is to love a person. No religion or law should put someone behind bars for that.”  

Despite the lack of scientific evidence, the practice is sadly a very common occurrence, with 200 girls in just one prison in Balkh province incarcerated for failing the ‘test’. Describing the conditions in the prison Farhad said: 

“At night, the girls are taken out of their cells and raped by the prison guards and authorities. We are now providing services to help prevent them falling pregnant. 

“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.”

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 has been secured in the form of an official public health policy that will stop the practice from being performed in every medical facility in Afghanistan.

With funding from the Swedish government, Marie Stopes will work closely with doctors and nurses in health facilities in every Afghan province to make sure the new policy is understood and communicated.

“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,” said Javid.

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.”

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