Next week (12-14 Nov) is the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25, which is the 25th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development which was held in Cairo in the 90s, which brought together 179 governments to put together and action plan on how to “set out to empower women and girls for their sake, and for the benefit of their families, communities and nations.”Now in Nairobi anyone who is anybody in the realm of population, development and the rights of girls and women (approx. 7000 people) will arrive in Nairobi to commit to accelerating the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals 2030, in particular those to do with:
- Unmet family planning and universal access to sexual and reproductive health services and rights as part of universal health coverage
- Ending harmful practices and sexual and gender based violence against women
- Achieving 0 preventable maternal deaths
I have spent a lot of my time from when I was around 9 until now learning about sexual and reproductive health, advocating for the rights of individuals living with HIV, and the rights of girls and women. I am a scientist and a public health professional and I have been trained on child protection, gender based violence interventions in humanitarian settings, on humanitarian law and policy as well as international law during armed conflicts, particularly how it pertains to sexual and gender based violence (yes I am a nerd nerd). So not only do I view and understand certain issues differently, I am very invested and passionate…so when I saw the story about some things T.I. had said on the Ladies Like Us Podcast about his daughter and hymen testing going viral all over Twitter last night, I knew it was gonna get real ugly.
I am all for fathers accompanying their children to the doctors, especially having such a relationship with their daughters to go with them to the gynaecologist. However, if it’s just to ensure that a hymen is not ‘broken’ so you may sleep at night thinking your daughter isn’t sexually active yet is misinformed, outdated and is by defintion sexual and gender based violence. I’m going to explain why by breaking down some things.
Sexual & Gender Based Violence: This refers to any act that is perpetrated against a person’s will and is based on gender norms and unequal power relationships.
Hymen: The hymen is a piece of thin tissue that is located at the opening of the vagina. Hymens usually have a hole in them that allows period flow and the use of tampons. Hymens are not created equal, some people are born with little tissue, some with more. It can stretch, tear, wear away. Some women are not even born with a hymen.
Hymen/Virginity test: Two fingers are used to examine whether the hymen is ‘intact’, (from the above description of a hymen, you can see why this test is already flawed)
Virginity: neither a scientific or medical term, but a social construct to describe someone who has not had sex before.
Now in the podcast interview with T.I., he does acknowledge that he is aware that a hymen can ‘break’ or be damaged in other ways such as gymnastic, horseback riding or extreme sports, some other ones are the use of tampons or masturbation. The issue here is that many people have the belief that the hymen being ‘intact’ directly translates to their having been no sexual intercourse, i.e. virgins, which doesn’t make sense because a hymen does not prove sexual activity.
Let’s say that hypothetically the hymen being intact = has never had sex.
- If one’s hymen stretches while horse riding are they no longer considered a virgin?
- If one has sex and it doesn’t stretch at all, which does happen, are they still then considered a virgin?
- How about people who are having other forms of sex that aren’t penetrative, are they considered virgins still?
You see where I’m getting at? This concept of virginity is not only incredibly discriminatory but this idea, when perpetuated, leads to serious consequences. This idea is used to assess a woman’s virtue, honour or social value. In some countries around the world premarital sex is against the law and women risk prison time, and therefore in order to determine if someone has had sex they are forced to undergo a hymen test. In the most extreme cases some women commit suicide and others are killed by their families in so called honour killings because they have ‘brought disgrace upon their families’. In some instances virginity is a prerequisite to marriage and in other instances it is even a requirement for successful employment.
Now although these are some of the most extreme cases, the perpetuation of this idea is also very prevalent in the West. The idea that virginity is another way of saying someone is ‘pure’ or ‘good’ and therefore if a woman is sexually active or sexually empowered she is seen as ‘dirty’ and then slut shamed.
As per a joint statement issued by the World Health Organisation, the UN Human Rights and UN Women in 2018 condemning hymen tests, they outline that these examinations are not only a violation of women’s and girls’ human rights but can lead to to re-experience, re-traumatization and re-victimization for survivors of sexual violence. Performing this medically unnecessary and harmful test violates several human rights and ethical standards including the fundamental principle in medicine to ‘do no harm’. WHO recommends that this test should not be performed under any circumstances. Anxiety, Depression, PTSD have all been seen in girls and women who have undergone a hymen test. There is no scientific or medical basis behind it and all it does is put girls and women in extremely vulnerable positions.
There is no shame in your sexual activity, it does not lessen your worth and you have full agency of your body.