TRIGGER WARNING: Please note that this piece includes language and themes of child abuse, virginity testing and coercion that some may find triggering.
The government has made it illegal to carry out, offer or aid and abet virginity testing or hymenoplasty in any part of the UK under the Health and Care Act 2022. Virginity tests breach women’s and girls’ fundamental rights under the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA), including the right to be free from torture and inhuman treatment and the right to private and family life.
In April, virginity testing was made a criminal offence across the UK under the Health and Care Bill 2022. In a policy paper, which concluded that virginity testing ‘has no clinical or scientific merit’, the government pledged to ban it through the passing of new amendments. The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) concluded that there is no ‘reliable way to ascertain if a woman or girl is a virgin, nor is there any reason to know’.
What is virginity testing?
Virginity tests are carried out to ‘prove’ that a woman or girl is a ‘virgin’. In the UK, virginity testing has been carried out in community settings to ‘prove’ that a girl is a virgin for several religious or cultural practices. The paper recognises that women and girls are often coerced or forced into having the ‘test’ by their family members and in some cases by their intended husband’s family. The examination can cause psychological and physical trauma.
A certificate is produced to ‘verify’ a person’s virginity, which, it is reported, can be a requirement for a marriage to proceed.
The majority of virginity tests are carried out in private healthcare settings and are carried out by healthcare professionals. According to the DHSC, private providers are ‘not required to record or share data, and virginity testing isn’t an advertised service’. The DHSC has confirmed that there is no evidence to suggest that virginity testing has been carried out on the NHS.
A step forward in safeguarding women and girls
The Bill makes it an offence for anyone to carry out virginity testing in the UK or for a UK national or habitual resident of the UK to carry out virginity testing outside the UK.
New amendments to the Bill will make the crime of virginity testing ‘extra-territorial’. This means that a person who is a UK national who carries out virginity testing outside the UK would be guilty of the offences and could be tried in the UK. Under the Bill, it will be a criminal offence to ‘aid and abet’ the carrying out of virginity testing, for example by accompanying the woman or girl to the test. The offences will carry a maximum penalty of a five-year custodial sentence and/or an ‘unlimited fine’.
Aneeta Prem, a human rights activist and founder of the charity Freedom, commented: “All the women and girls who have suffered this horrendous abuse, we are nearly there”. In an official statement, Freedom said: “We are delighted to see progress in relation to outlawing virginity testing and hymenoplasty. We will continue to work with governments to achieve the change we need to end this abhorrent abuse once and for all”
The DHSC has since issued non-statutory guidance, which offers advice for chief executives, directors, senior managers, as well as frontline professionals who may come into contact with women and girls affected by virginity testing and hymenoplasty.
A spokesperson from the DHSC stated: “Our amendment (to the Health and Care Bill) seeks to increase public confidence by demonstrating that the government is committed to tackling and reducing the prevalence of violence against women and girls and, ultimately, ensuring that vulnerable women and girls are safer in the United Kingdom.”
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