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Forced 'virginity tests' leaving scars on Afghan detainees

Afghan women and girls accused of so-called moral crimes are forced to endure "virginity tests" by government doctors, says a new report. DW examines the reasons behind this practice and its impact on the detainees.

Women in war-ravaged Afghanistan continue to suffer abuse in the hands of not only extremists but also government bodies, revealed a recent study conducted by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).

For the report, the commission interviewed 53 detainees aged between 13 and 45 years from 12 different provinces. 48 out of these 53 women, who were accused of committing so-called moral crimes such as adultery, were forced to undergo invasive "virginity tests," vaginal and rectal examinations performed against their will by government doctors, said the report.

"Since gynecological tests are conducted without consent of the victim, it can be considered sexual harassment and human rights violation," said the AIHRC in the report. It also added that such tests violated the spirit of the Afghan constitution as well as international principles.

In most cases, such tests are also conducted in the presence of male guards in detention centers which can leave "deep psychological effects" on women, the study found.

"Such treatments during the tests exacerbate mental pain and humiliation among these women, and prolong their pain and mental suffering," noted the report, pointing out that the tests are combined with threats, insults and humiliation.

The study's findings spotlight the shaky progress Afghan women have seen in their lives over the past 15 years following the ouster of the Taliban regime. Despite millions of dollars spent to improve women's lives during this period, they still remain vulnerable and are subjected to discrimination and human rights abuses by government bodies, including the nation's judicial system, and wider society.

No scientific basis

Maria Bashir, the only female public prosecutor in Afghanistan, says she knows many women who were subjected to such tests. "Police send women accused of moral crimes to forensic medicine where they undergo gynecological tests. Women don't have a say in whether they want to take the test or not," Bashir told DW, adding that in most cases the court bases its decision on the results of the test.

Having sexual relations outside marriage is a crime in Afghanistan punishable by three to five years of imprisonment.

But Bashir strongly opposes virginity tests and calls on the South Asian nation's judiciary to build their cases based on other evidence. "There are other ways for the government to prove if someone was involved in a sexual activity outside marriage. Judges should rely on confessions or other evidence," Basher stressed.

The AIHRC report also stated that from medical points of view, virginity tests have "no scientific base, and the presence or absence of hymen has no connection with sexual relations."

The commission also noted that there are many uncertainties when it comes to conducting virginity tests in the country, pointing out that there is no legal basis for the police and other law enforcement institutions to force women and girls to undergo such tests.

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"There is no single written directive to clearly explain who and for what charge and under what conditions should be introduced for gynecological test, and how this test should be performed, by what organ or individuals, with the consent or without consent be executed," the report added.

'Hugely problematic'

Afghanistan is a deeply conservative society where a lot of value is attached to girls' virginity. If a girl is unable to prove she hasn't had any type of sexual relations prior to marriage, she can be sent back to her parents' home or in some cases even killed for honor.

Mariam Kofi, a member of the Women, Human Rights and Civil Society Commission in the Afghan parliament, says in such a society, conducting virginity tests under very poor conditions can destroy lives. "Even if all the charges are dropped because the results of the test showed that a woman did not have sex, merely undergoing such tests can be hugely problematic for the future of a woman," warned the Afghan MP.

Kofi said in some cases officers and other government personnel who preformed virginity tests on women even threaten them to be able to sexually abuse them later.

The AIHRC has called on the Afghan government to ban forced gynecological tests and provide psychological help to women who have been forced to undergo such tests. Mariam Kofi, however, said despite the calls the situation has not improved.

"We have shared concerns with Afghan authorities on this matter, but unfortunately we have not seen any improvements so far," she said, adding that she feared the situation for Afghan women will not improve anytime soon. "I am afraid 2016 will not be a good year for Afghan women."

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