Can two fingers tell the truth?

In many countries around the world – still more than 20 as of late 2018 – the state of a woman’s vagina is given more importance than her words. Virginity testing is, indeed, still common practice in these countries and affects two main categories of women: the survivor of rape wishing to get justice, and the to-be married. In the latter case, the test aims at assessing the ‘purity’ or ‘chastity’ of the women by verifying the presence of their hymen (e.g. in 2018, Moroccan civil society started an important movement against the virginity test imposed on to-be married women through a very explicit slogan : « my vulva belongs to me »). In the former case, the one discussed more in-depth below, the main practice imposed on rape survivors is the famous ‘two-finger test’.

It is a very straightforward test: the doctor inserts two fingers in the vagina of the survivor to assess its size and elasticity. Depending on the result, the doctor draws a conclusion on the sexual habits of the survivor. This conclusion is then used in trial in favor of, or (much most likely) against, the testimony of the survivor. If she is considered sexually active – oftentimes deemed an “immoral behavior” – she will lose credibility and the rape case will be discarded. Not only is this conclusion disturbingly wrong but it also reduces the crime of rape to an act of penetration of the vagina. Although in concordance with the legislations of the countries where the test is performed, this highly conservative interpretation of the crime is inconsistent with the reality of its commission.

In October 2018, a UN joint statement by the World Health Organization, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNWOMEN called for the ban of any kind of virginity testing, including the two-finger test. The UN agencies recalled that these tests lack medical utility and scientific veracity in establishing any sexual activity, and can have a deeply harmful impact on the survivor (for an in-depth analysis of the relevance of such test and its harmful consequences see here). This call, long awaited, is of great support to the human right defenders, NGOs and other entities fighting to eradicate the practice. It may also bolster State-level developments with the same aim.

The call mirrors the international standards on prosecuting sexual violence, according to which the sexual past, behavior or habits of a survivor cannot be taken into consideration by judges. See, for example, the Rules 70 and 71 of the Rules of Procedure and Evidence of the ICC according to which “Credibility, character or predisposition to sexual availability of a victim or witness cannot be inferred by reason of the sexual nature of the prior or subsequent conduct of a victim or witness”. Taking this into account, “a Chamber shall not admit evidence of the prior or subsequent sexual conduct of a victim or witness”.

Indeed, virginity testing also constitutes a violation of the survivor’s international human rights, which dictate a right to non-discrimination on the basis of sex, physical and sexual integrity, prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatments, right to privacy, equality before the Courts and Tribunals and equal protection of the law (see mainly articles 2,3, 7,17,14, 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).

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