Can you imagine being thrown in jail simply for loving someone?
In a prison in the Balkh province of Afghanistan, more than 200 girls and young women are crammed into prison cells for just that. Convicted of losing their virginity outside marriage on the basis of spurious, invasive “medical” examinations - this is the fate of countless girls in Afghanistan.
In a new piece, The Guardian highlights the work Marie Stopes International is doing to prevent that fate. According to a 2016 Human Rights Watch report, almost half of all women incarcerated in Afghanistan – and 95% of girls in juvenile detention – are there for “moral crimes,” such as sex before marriage.
But after a long fight, Marie Stopes Afghanistan has secured the first official policy to stop virginity testing in every clinic and hospital in the country. The Swedish government has also signed on to communicate the changes to doctors and nurses nationwide, as well as provide funding for the transition.
The test that decides a girl’s fate is a crude “two finger” examination to check whether the hymen is intact. Despite discreditation beyond doubt, the examination causes hundreds of girls to face public shame, prison or honor killings every year. According to Marie Stopes Afghanistan Country Director Farhad Jarvid:
“It has been like this through the history of Afghanistan. If the girl does not bleed on her wedding night or she is seen alone with a boy, she is taken to the hospital and forcibly examined. They put their hands on her and open the vagina. They don’t know what they are doing. It’s abuse.”
After being alerted to the issue, Marie Stopes Afghanistan submitted an application to the government to establish a working group of local and international organizations in the country. At the same time, we got to work drafting a new policy document.
In March 2017 the President of Afghanistan declared virginity testing would be banned unless it was done with the consent of the woman. But Marie Stopes and the working group argued that the ruling did not go far enough.
“Whether it is done voluntarily is not the point. The test is completely ineffective. A girl can be a virgin and not bleed on her wedding night and the hymen can break riding a donkey. You can’t judge or criticize her for that.”
This month, after years of hard work the policy to stop virginity tests across all medical health facilities in Afghanistan was finally approved.
For the girls and young women in Afghanistan, change cannot come soon enough.