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. The offence carries a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment.
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 government recognised 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.
Virginity testing, also referred to as hymen, ‘2-finger’ or vaginal examination, is an inspection of the female genitalia, intended to determine whether a woman or girl has had vaginal sexual intercourse.
For the purposes of the Health and Care Act 2022, virginity testing is any examination (with or without contact) of the female genitalia intended to establish if vaginal intercourse has taken place. This is irrespective of whether consent has been given.
The position of the World Health Organization and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) is that virginity tests have no scientific merit or clinical indication as there is no known examination that can prove whether a woman has had vaginal intercourse.
Hymenoplasty is a procedure undertaken to reconstruct a hymen. There are a number of different techniques to achieve but it generally involves stitching hymenal remnants together at the vaginal opening, or surgically reconstructing a hymen using vaginal tissue. The aim of the procedure is to ensure that a woman bleeds the next time she has intercourse to give the impression that she has no history of vaginal intercourse. There is no guarantee that this will fully reform the hymen or cause bleeding when penetration is attempted.
Hymenoplasty is not the same as other procedures that could be performed on the hymen for clinical reasons (for example, surgery to remove remnant fingers of the hymen that cause discomfort, or to treat an imperforate hymen to allow menstrual blood to escape).
The majority of virginity tests are carried out in private healthcare settings and are carried out by healthcare professionals. According to the government, private providers are ‘not required to record or share data, and virginity testing isn’t an advertised service’. There is no evidence to suggest that virginity testing has been carried out on the NHS.
Why is the practice so harmful?
Virginity testing and hymenoplasty are forms of violence against women and girls and are part of the cycle of so called ‘honour-based’ abuse.
Women and girls are coerced, forced and shamed into undergoing these procedures, often pressurised by family members or their intended husbands’ family in the name of supposedly upholding honour and to fulfil the requirement that a woman remains ‘pure’ before marriage. Some practitioners issue a certificate to prove ‘virginity’ after a virginity test or hymenoplasty, while some will simply tell the family or community members whether a woman or girl has ‘passed’ a virginity test.
Both virginity testing and hymenoplasty can be precursors to child or forced marriage and other forms of family and/or community coercive behaviours, including physical and emotional control. Women who ‘fail’ a virginity test, are found to have undergone a hymen reconstruction, or do not bleed on their wedding night are likely to experience further so called ‘honour-based’ abuse including emotional and physical abuse, family or community disownment and even honour killings.
The practices are degrading and intrusive. They can lead to extreme psychological trauma in the victim, and can provoke conditions including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The practices have been linked to suicide. They can be physically harmful. For example, virginity testing can result in damage to the hymen, tears and damage to the vaginal wall, bleeding, and infection. The risk of infection is also high in hymenoplasty, which has the added risks of acute bleeding during the procedure, scarring and narrowing of the opening of the vagina and sexual difficulties.
Virginity testing and hymenoplasty are considered to have a similar level of seriousness to assault occasioning actual bodily harm (assault to injury in Scotland). This is in recognition of the physical and psychological harm they can cause to the individual who is subjected to them. This level of seriousness also reflects the controlling attitudes that underpin the practices.
As with other forms of so called ‘honour-based’ abuse, these practices often take place behind closed doors, in highly conservative communities and cultures. Because of this, the numbers of women and girls that are subjected to these practices are not known. Although prevalence is unclear, there is evidence of women and girls being under intense pressure to undergo virginity testing and hymenoplasty.
If you are a healthcare provider concerned as to the lawfulness of any services that you provide, please contact our team of criminal and regulatory lawyers who will be able to offer up to date advice and guidance.
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