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Afghanistan: Sexual Assault in the Name of Science | Heather Barr

21 March 2016

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Human Rights Watch - 29 February 2016 - Dispatches

by Heather Barr (Senior Researcher, Women’s Rights Division)

Each year, dozens or even hundreds of women and girls in Afghanistan are subjected to invasive, humiliating, and sometimes painful vaginal and rectal exams in the name of “science.” These so-called virginity exams are not just demeaning – they constitute sexual assault and are often used as evidence against women in court for the “crime” of zina, or sex outside of marriage.

The governmental Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission recently interviewed 53 women and girls as young as 13 who had been accused of zina, an act punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Forty-eight of these women and girls had been sent for “virginity exams” performed by Afghan government doctors. Twenty were examined more than once – up to four times in a couple of cases. One woman said that there were six people in the room watching the examination.

Doctors write reports based on these examinations, and they are used as evidence in courts hearing the “moral crime” accusation against the woman or girl. These reports often draw conclusions on whether a woman or girl is a “virgin,” and whether she recently or habitually engaged in sexual intercourse.

“Virginity exams” are bogus. Many people mistakenly believe that virginity can be determined because the hymen is always broken when a woman or girl has sexual intercourse for the first time. This is simply not true. Some girls are born without a hymen; hymens often break during daily non-sexual activities, and some hymens remain intact after sexual intercourse.

Purported virginity exams are so unreliable that the World Health Organization has said that they have no scientific validity and health workers should never conduct them.

The continued use of degrading and unscientific “virginity exams” by the Afghan government is part of a broader pattern of abuses in which women and girls in Afghanistan are jailed on spurious “moral crimes” accusations, often in situations where they are fleeing forced marriage or domestic violence. The government should end these arrests entirely and reform the law that permits them. Banning all “virginity exams” could be an important first step toward reform. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani could abolish these exams through an executive order. Recognizing everyone’s inherent dignity, respecting human rights, and appreciating real science over pseudo-science all demand he do so.

P.S.

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