The government’s decision to ban so-called virginity tests is a “false victory” as it does not prohibit hymenoplasty surgery, experts have warned.
While “virginity tests” are set to be made illegal in England and Wales, procedures claiming to repair the hymen at UK clinics will not be banned under the new measures.
Richard Holden, Conservative MP for North West Durham, recently brought in a clause to the Health and Care Bill that strives to outlaw so-called virginity tests. Doctors or midwives carrying out the procedures could face jail time under the new measures.
The World Health Organisation says the practice is also a sham because the hymen can rip for a number of reasons such as using a tampon or doing exercise. Health professionals warn hymenoplasty surgery has zero scientific basis as well as being invasive and inhumane. Such procedures can also cause women’s bodies to become infected.
Exclusive data, which the national honour abuse helpline shared exclusively with The Independent, shows a sharp rise in women and girls reporting virginity testing and hymen surgery.
Some 41 callers contacted the advice line between April 2020 and April this year to raise fears about their own experiences of “virginity testing” or hymen surgery. This is a 75 per cent increase from the same time period a year earlier.
Natasha Rattu, director of Karma Nirvana, a national charity which runs the helpline, told The Independent: “We have had cases where the girl’s virginity is in dispute because she has been seen with a boy, so her family send her to have her virginity tested.
“Virginity testing is essentially a form of violence against women and girls. Every woman deserves the right to take any decision about her body and be free from shame and stigma without fear of experiencing harmful repercussions.
“Virginity tests perpetuate this false view of purity and modesty. Women will not be seen as pure if they have had relationships outside of marriage.”
Ms Rattu, whose organisation supports victims of honour-based abuse, warned virginity testing is rarely an isolated form of abuse and goes hand in hand with forced marriage and coercive control.
The campaigner hit out at the government for not including hymenoplasty surgery in the new measures as she called for ministers to recognise the two issues are “inextricable” from each other.
“If we do not ban them, we risk creating a loophole where victims are still subjected to abuse connected to being a virgin,” Ms Rattu said. “And are consumed by the fear of needing to be a virgin.”
She branded the new measures a “false victory” as she argued the government does not properly understand the issue.
Ms Rattu recalled the case of a 17-year-old girl from Yorkshire who sought help from their services after her family forced her to have a virginity test.
She added: “In this particular case, she hadn’t had sex before. But the virginity test showed she wasn’t a virgin. But your hymen can break in so many different ways. From tampons, exercise, just generally living your life. It might just be from doing PE at school.
“It goes to show these tests are so inaccurate. The reality is there is no way you medically or clinically know what a person’s previous sexual history is.”
Ms Rattu explained the teenage girl’s family were making preparations for her to have hymen surgery before pushing her into a forced marriage as quickly as possible. The young girl, who came from a Christian family, has since been placed into a shelter for abuse victims and is no longer in contact with her family as they made her fear for her safety.
“Not every woman is born with a hymen,” Ms Rattu added. “Virginity testing perpetuates the false idea every woman is born with an intact hymen and the only way it can be impacted is through sex.”
She recounted another case of a 22-year-old girl who fell pregnant from a relationship she kept secret from her family. After her relatives learnt she was pregnant, her father physically assaulted her, with her family members making plans for her to have an abortion and then hymen repair before being forced into marriage.
“In that case, this poor girl had actually gone to the hymen repair clinic and had a consultation and after that contacted police,” Ms Rattu added. “She was so petrified of health care services and was so traumatised after her experience, she didn’t want to go into the hospital and do routine appointments while pregnant.”
Hymen surgery can be easily accessed across the UK via clinics advertised on the internet – with people able to book procedures with just a few days notice.
The Independent previously reported girls have been forced to endure so-called virginity tests at UK medical clinics – with campaigners and politicians calling for the practice to be stopped.
A recent BBC investigation discovered 21 clinics offering virginity testing in the UK – which were charging between £150 and £300.
Dr Edward Morris, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said: “We are very concerned that women are either being coerced into having these procedures or feel pressurised into having them so they can bleed during sex and can demonstrate they are a virgin on their wedding night.
“We want to see both virginity testing and hymenoplasty banned in the UK. This will send a clear message that there is no place in the medical world for these procedures and that women deserve the right to have ownership over their own sexual and reproductive health.”
He noted women getting such procedures are often in highly “vulnerable and desperate situations” as he called for healthcare professionals who are approached about virginity testing or hymenoplasty to adhere to “appropriate safeguarding protocols”.
“To ensure women are able to connect with organisations that can offer support,” Mr Morris added. “This should include referring women to the police or social services if there is a perceived risk of violence or coercion.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies