Double standards in what is expected from men and women in African societies have led to the adoption of unfair practices, such as virginity tests, which some leaders are looking to implement as a way to control the ability for women to access opportunities. Last month, Egyptian Legislator Elhami Agina proposed that female students should be be virgins in order to secure university admission, according to Al-Monitor. Agina is one of many African leaders who believe that females should undergo virginity testing in order to curb “gawaz orfy,” or informal marriages between Egyptian students, which is a prevalent practice in the country.
Agina was backed by fellow legislator, Yusry al-Maghazi, who added that the virginity tests should be legalized. The proposed tests would involve a medical practitioner inserting fingers inside a woman’s vagina to find out whether she has torn her hymen, which occurs during sexual intercourse.
Precedent for Agina’s Proposal
More about this
In 2014, virginity tests were carried out in Egypt on seven female protesters detained by the state during the 2011 revolution, which resulted in the ousting of former President Hosni Mubarak. According to CNN, the tests were stopped by the Cairo Administrative Court after one of the women complained about the humiliating practice. The dehumanizing nature of the test has also prompted the Egyptian National Council of Women to issue a legal complaint against Agina for his proposal.
In January, Face2Face Africa covered the degrading virginity testing policy practiced by the Maiden Bursary scholarship program in South Africa, where female students received funding for school fees for remaining virgins. In order to maintain funding through the scheme, the students were virginally tested by elderly women. Social anthropologist Fiona Scorgie told the Huffington Post that virginity testers look for tight muscle tone, firm buttocks and breasts, and a flat abdomen.
Six months later, the South African Commission for Gender Equality ruled that virginity tests were unconstitutional, citing the scheme to be “discriminatory” since it excludes males. The 2005 South African Children’s Bill also criminalizes virginity testing.
Justifying Virginity Tests
Supporters of virginity tests in Egypt and South Africa claim that they are meant to curb informal marriages and teenage pregnancies. According to a 2010 survey done by the Population Council in Egypt, 25 percent of women aged between 25-29 were married before they were 18-years-old, compared to only 2 percent of males. In a South African General Household Survey released last year, 99,000 teenage girls were found to be pregnant in 2013, up from 81,000 in 2012.
In 2015, the Lancet Medical Journal published a report that refers to virginity testing as, “unjustifiable, because it is incompatible with professional obstetric and gynaecological ethics.” The test is also referred to as “scientifically invalid” by the World Health Organisation.
If the tests are meant to curb informal marriages and teenage pregnancies, how do females marry or get pregnant without males? Why is the blame cast on females more than males?
Imagine being a young woman who has passed her secondary education exams and is waiting to be admitted to university, only for government policy to stipulate that she must first take a virginity test. Or imagine having secured a bursary to fund your university education, only for policy to stipulate that you must remain a virgin to receive the funding.
These discriminatory conditions prompt other questions. For instance, is university not part of the natural academic progression for a woman, as it is for a man? Why are males not subjected to the same tests, yet they also take part in sexual intercourse? If such virginity tests are right, why are they legally disputed by courts, commissions, and human rights activists? Why is there a gender bias in the public policy making processes in Egypt and South Africa regarding virginity tests? Should a female’s right to tertiary education be taken away if she is not a virgin?
Such questions are raised in the context of universal legal instruments that emphasize human dignity. Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that no one shall be subjected to degrading treatment, including medical examination. Furthermore, the fourth Sustainable Development Goal promotes lifelong learning as a right for all. Egypt and South Africa have both agreed to adhere to these policies, implying that they should align with their constitutions.
Educated women have contributed to the economic development of Africa despite societal and political constraints, according to research done by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Therefore, it’s confusing why a virginity test should determine if a girl gets educated at the university level.
In my opinion, virginity tests are a violation of a female’s dignity. They are unscientific, non-consensual, and discriminatory. I believe strongly that it’s an individual choice for a woman to decide whether or not she should lose her virginity, and it shouldn’t play a role in her ability to secure funding or opportunities in society.