In Indonesia, the test is considered standard practice. Women seeking to join the military are required to strip naked and have their genitalia manually examined by a doctor, purportedly to ensure that they are virgins.
“It is done in order to get the best people both physically and mentally,” military spokesman Major-General Fuad Basya bluntly told the Sydney Morning Herald.
The criticism comes as global health officials gather in Bali for the World Congress on Military Medicine, which begins Sunday. Aimed at discussing what militaries can do to address health crises, the conference has instead put Indonesia’s own military medical practices under a microscope.
Human Rights Watch wrote to the chair of the conference, urging him to ask Indonesia’s General Surgeon to end the practice. And the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims called on participants to reject the tests, calling them “a gross violation of women’s rights … that may amount to ill-treatment and torture under international law.”
Indonesian military officials are open about the practice of examining a female candidate’s hymen to determine whether or not she has had sex. If it is broken, the woman is expected to explain herself to the doctors, knowing that her job is at stake.
“If it is due to an accident we can still consider it but if it’s due to another reason, well, we cannot accept her,” Fuad told the Morning Herald.
It’s not entirely clear how military doctors conduct the examination — Human Rights Watch says they use an invasive “two finger test,” the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims described a different practice. Apart from questions about its relevance, “virginity tests” of all kinds have been discredited by health experts.
Last December, the World Health Organization declared that virginity tests have “no scientific validity” in a handbook on dealing with victims of sexual violence.
“There is no place for virginity (or ‘two-finger’) testing,” the group wrote.
This month, in an expert statement in the journal “Torture,” a group of 35 forensic specialists argued that hymen examinations don’t indicate anything about a woman’s sexual history and don’t help to detect sexually transmitted diseases. What’s more, they said that health professionals have no reason to be testing a woman’s virginity in the first place.
“There is no medically significant value that can be attributed to virginity,” they wrote. “… The examinations are irrelevant and harmful to women, and serve as a form of social control of their sexuality.”
If virginity tests serve no purpose to doctors, they have a profound effect on the women who are subjected to them. A woman who underwent the examination when applying to Indonesia’s police force (which also requires the test) told Human Rights Watch that the experience was traumatizing.
“I feared that after they performed the test I would not be a virgin anymore. It really hurt. My friend even fainted because … it really hurt, really hurt,” she said, according to HRW.
In their statement in “Torture,” the forensic specialists argued that mandatory hymen examinations are a form of rape, since they invade a patient’s body.
“These examinations can cause physical pain and can lead to damage to the hymen, bleeding and to infection,” they wrote. “Psychologically, the pain and suffering caused by these examinations is especially acute.”
Virginity testing is a contentious issue in Indonesia. The country came under fire last November when Human Rights Watch published an investigation of virginity tests on police recruits. Some officials denied the practice, but others acknowledged it openly and defended it.
“The procedure has been practiced for a long time. We need to check the quality [of the candidates] by checking their virginity,” Inspector General Moechgiyarto, head of the National Police law division, told the Jakarta Post. He implied that the goal of the test was to prevent prostitutes from joining the force.
A proposal to subject female high school graduates to the test sparked an outcry earlier this year, with advocacy groups calling the test a human rights violation, and the country’s top Muslim clerics saying it discriminated against female students and conflicted with Islamic teachings, according to Reuters.
That proposal was ultimately withdrawn, but it appears that police recruits are still tested, as well as candidates for the military.
“It should be stopped,” Human Rights Watch spokesman Andreas Harsono told Reuters in February. “It is degrading. It is discriminatory. It is cruel.”