Virgin or not? That’s none of your concern

Anyone performing virginity tests on female genitalia could now be imprisoned for up to five years.

A draft bill making virginity testing a criminal offence has received Parliamentary approval. This practice, intended to ascertain if a woman has had sexual relations, relies on examining the hymen, a mucosal tissue piece that might partially cover the vaginal opening, or assessing the laxity of vaginal tissues. The underlying assumption, that the hymen can only be torn through sexual intercourse, is flawed.

Virginity testing faces substantial criticisms. Firstly, the hymen’s condition is an unreliable sexual intercourse indicator, as its appearance varies among individuals and can be altered by non-sexual activities, such as physical exercises or tampon use. Moreover, some girls are born without a hymen. Secondly, numerous international organisations, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations Human Rights, and UN Women, consider virginity testing a human rights violation. They advocate for a global prohibition, condemning it as gender discrimination, a form of violence against women, and an infringement of privacy and bodily autonomy rights.

Despite these concerns, virginity testing persists in certain cultures and communities worldwide for reasons like marriage rituals, rape investigations, or women and girls’ social control. The practice is denounced for being scientifically unfounded and ethically and morally reprehensible, fostering stigma and discrimination.

Now outlawed in Malta

Malta has undertaken measures to outlaw virginity testing, labelled as sexual violence and scientifically invalidated by numerous global bodies. The Maltese Parliament debated a bill to criminalise virginity testing. Under this legislation, anyone performing virginity tests on female genitalia could be imprisoned for up to five years.

Parliamentary Secretary Rebecca Buttigieg, responding to the bill’s passage in Parliament, stated that “every woman and girl deserves to live without fear or the threat of degrading treatment. Virginity testing constitutes sexual abuse and violence. Through this action, we are declaring as a society that such behaviour is unequivocally unacceptable.”

This step aligns with international conventions and guidelines, like those from the Istanbul Convention, ratified by Malta. The bill aims to shield women and girls from the trauma, humiliation, and distress linked to virginity testing. It differentiates necessary gynaecological exams from virginity testing based on the examination’s intent, ensuring that legitimate medical procedures remain unaffected.

Parliamentary discussions saw support from both Governmental and Opposition figures, highlighting the need to safeguard women’s dignity and tackle broader gender-based violence and discrimination issues. The law is a precautionary measure, acknowledging Malta’s multicultural demographic and the possibility of such practices, albeit there’s no current evidence of virginity testing in Malta. This initiative is part of a wider commitment to uphold human rights and gender equality, with recommendations for additional legal and social reforms to support women and combat domestic violence being discussed.

Malta’s legislative action reflects an increasing recognition and repudiation of practices infringing women’s rights and perpetuating gender inequality, in line with the worldwide demands to abolish virginity testing.

Photo: Ivan Babydov

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