- “Virginity tests,” in which a woman’s hymen is examined, are available at least seven UK medical clinics, an investigation by BBC Newsbeat and 100 Women has found.
- The tests are legal in the UK, but the WHO and UN say they violate human rights and should be banned.
- “Failing” the test can result in violence, sexual assault, banishment from their community, and even “honor killing.”
- France is currently mulling a ban of the tests, but experts warn this could lead to a black market.
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At least seven medical clinics in the UK sell controversial “virginity tests,” an investigation by BBC Newsbeat and 100 Women has found.
During the test, a practitioner examines the woman’s vagina to see if her hymen is intact and determine whether she has had vaginal intercourse.
The tests are legal in the UK, but both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations are fighting for them to be banned, saying they violate human rights.
It is not possible to find whether a woman has had intercourse by looking at her hymen, the WHO says. The tests can harm women’s mental and physical health, it added.
The BBC found 21 private clinics offering “virginity repair” services. When the BBC inquired, seven confirmed they offered “virginity testing.” This was priced at between £150 and £300 ($200 to $400).
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In many cases, women are forced to take the tests, the WHO says. This can be by parents, employers, or potential partners. “Proof of virginity” is sometimes required for marriage. In some cultures, the concept of virginity determines a woman’s virtue, honor, and social value, according to the WHO.
Virginity tests are also sometimes carried out on sexual assault victims to determine whether rape has occurred.
The practice is “medically unnecessary, and often times painful, humiliating, and traumatic,” the WHO says.
The tests are traditionally carried out by either inspecting the hymen for tears or its size of opening, or inserting fingers into the vagina. But there is no evidence that either method can prove whether a woman or girl has had vaginal intercourse, the medical body adds.
In some circumstances, “failing” the test is seen to bring dishonor and shame to their family and community. It can result in punishment, including being beaten, starved, sexually assaulted, banished from their community, or even murdered as a so-called “honor killing.”
WHO recommends that virginity tests aren’t performed under any circumstances, and urges governments to enact and enforce laws that ban the practice.
France is divided on a virginity test ban
In France, politicians are considering a ban of the practice.
If legislation passes, medical professionals who issue a virginity certificate could face a year in prison and a 15,000 euro ($17,875) fine.
Almost one in three French doctors said they have been asked for these certificates, according to France 3 TV news. In France, the certificates are mostly used by Muslim and Roma families to prove virginity before marriage, and most tests are carried out on girls and young women.
But experts are divided on the ban. Some doctors say that women could instead have to turn to illegal tests, or risk punishment from their relatives or partners if they can’t prove their virginity.
One gynecologist told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that it will “undoubtedly” promote a black market for certificates from “dubious pharmacies.” Experts have also said that punishing doctors wouldn’t solve the root of the problem.
Virginity restoration surgery is also legal in the UK
Linked to virginity testing is the concept of hymen repair surgery, which claims to restore a woman’s virginity.
The surgery involves using skin to reconstruct the hymen. It usually takes less than an hour and is performed under local anaesthetic.
At least 22 private clinics in the UK, where the practice is legal, offer the surgery, an investigation by The Sunday Times found in January. The operations cost up to £3,000 ($4,000), and sometimes women flew from abroad for the surgery.
The clinics claimed that the surgery would “restore your innocence” and is “100% safe.”
Since 2015, 69 such procedures have been carried out in the UK, according to NHS England data accessed by the BBC.
The BBC’s investigation also found hymen repair kits being sold online. A £104 kit the BBC purchased from Germany contained 60ml of vagina tightening gel, plastic tweezers, a blood capsule, and three sachets “that appear to contain fake blood.” The pack didn’t contain any instructions on how to use the equipment.