On Monday, Farhad Javid will meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his wife, Rula Ghani, to ask whether the president will order the release of some 190 women and girls who are currently in jail for failing a virginity test.
Javid is Afghanistan’s country director for Marie Stopes International, a global family planning organization. Five months ago, he and three colleagues visited the Mazar-i-Sharif prison and went from cell to cell to count the number of women and girls who had been jailed for failing the test. In Afghanistan, premarital sex is considered a moral crime.
The issue of virginity testing is not confined to Afghanistan. This week, the U.N., along with the World Health Organization, U.N. Women and U.N. Human Rights, called for a global ban on the practice. Virginity tests have been documented in at least 20 countries around the world, including Egypt, Indonesia and South Africa. And according to the U.N., increased globalization in the past century has resulted in requests for and cases of virginity testing in countries that had no previous history of the practice, for example, Belgium, the Netherlands and the U.K.
The test is administered for a variety of reasons: to determine whether a woman can go to school, get married, get a job — or whether she is a victim of rape.
According to the U.N., virginity tests are often performed by inspecting the hymen for tears or for the size of its opening, or inserting fingers into the vagina, to determine whether a girl or woman has had sex.
WHO states that there is no evidence that the test can prove that a person has had vaginal intercourse or not.
“This medically unnecessary, and often times painful, humiliating and traumatic practice must end,” the U.N. announced in a statement at the World Congress of Gynecology and Obstetrics in Rio de Janeiro.
In its statement, the U.N. called these tests a violation of human rights and a form of gender discrimination: “The social expectation that girls and women should remain ‘virgins’ is based on stereotyped notions that female sexuality should be curtailed within marriage. This notion is harmful to women and girls globally.”
In Afghanistan, the test is sometimes administered if a girl does something as simple as walking down the street with a boy, says Javid.
That’s what happened to a 13-year-old girl that Javid and his team from Maria Stopes met at the prison in Mazar-i-Sharif, the country’s fourth-largest city. The young teenager told a female member of the team that she was stopped by the police, accused of having sex and subjected to a virginity test. She says she failed the exam and was sent to prison.
Even the act of undergoing the test can have alarming consequences, says Javid. In talking with women and girls, he has been told that even if someone is determined to be a virgin, her “reputation is tarnished,” he says. “The family of the girl will think, ‘You have brought shame to our family and village.’ ”
In Afghanistan, the law states that women who fail the exam can be incarcerated for a maximum of three months. But, says Javid, “many are kept inside the jail for a year and a half — for nothing.”
After hearing reports from some of the prisoners, including the 13-year-old, of sexual abuse by wardens and prison guards, Javid sent two doctors to the prison to perform physical and psychosocial exams. The doctors told him that many girls and women reported they had been sexually abused by prison staff.
Javid and Marie Stopes Afghanistan are taking steps to tackle the issue.
That’s what the U.N. is recommending in its statement: The onus of eliminating virginity tests should be on local governments, working in tandem with rights groups, activists and nonprofit organizations. Together, “they’ll create the tools and policies and provide the support on a national level,” says Nazneen Damji, policy adviser on health at U.N. Women.
In July, the government of Afghanistan approved an official public health policy that Marie Stopes Afghanistan helped draft in an effort to stop enforcement of the law that allows women to be jailed on the basis of the virginity test. Aimed at doctors and medical professionals, the policy states that virginity tests are ineffective and unscientific as a means to ascertain whether a woman is a virgin.
Over the next three months the group will use funding from the Swedish government to train hospital directors in 19 provinces in the new policy. Marie Stopes doctors at these facilities, who provide family planning services, will also monitor to ensure that no virginity tests are administered.
“The doctors will be discouraged to carry out any of the tests with us being there,” says Javid. So if a police officer were to bring in a woman for such testing, the doctor could refuse.
Javid also hopes to convince Islamic community leaders that the test is ineffective. In November, he and his team are planning to hold meetings with leaders in four cities in Afghanistan, with subsequent visits to leaders in 19 of the country’s 34 provinces as well as some rural areas controlled by the Taliban.
Javid thinks about the 13-year-old girl he saw at the prison. When he visited her, she was packed into a tiny cell with 15 or 16 other women, he says.
“The poor girl was so small, just a teenager,” he says. “She looked like a pigeon with its wings all tied up.”
Upon reflecting on the girl’s story, he says, “We hope we will be able to convince the president and his wife this Monday.”
He knows the U.N.’s mandate to ban virginity tests won’t matter “to people on a provincial level.”
“But when you meet informed politicians, it absolutely matters,” he says. “We can use it to our benefit.”