The cultural practice of “virginity testing” is prevalent in many traditional African societies of which Sierra Leone is no exception. The scourge of sexual penetration of young girls in Sierra Leone has worsened the situation. Many parents including fathers have now adopted the practice even though it is considered an abuse and against the law in Sierra Leone. Virginity testing is a human rights violation with no scientific basis. It can lead to harmful mental as well as physical health consequences said the UN Agencies joint communique. On 17 October 2019, a group of United Nations agencies issued a joint statement calling for a ban on tests meant to assess the virginity of a girl or a woman, which is a common practice in at least 20 countries. The statement, which was issued during the World Congress of Gynaecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) in Rio de Janeiro, stresses that such tests are both unscientific, and a violation of human rights. So-called “virginity testing” – also often referred to as hymen, “two-finger” or per vaginal examination – is a gynaecological inspection of female genitalia carried out in the false belief that it can reliably determine whether a woman or girl has had vaginal intercourse. A father of a 14-year old girl at Susan’s Bay is currently standing trial before Magistrate Abdul Sherriff of Magistrate Court No. 3 at Pademba Road in Freetown for Sexual Penetration of a child contrary to the Sexual Offences Act No. 12 of 2012. The man is accused of “virginity testing” of his daughter. The victim said that her father usually calls her into his room and proceeds to insert his finger into her private part to see if she has started having sexual intercourse. She said the first time he did it to her she felt pain and screamed. The third time he tried to do it, I refused and he beat me, the teenage girl.
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In a global call to eliminate violence against women and girls everywhere, the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR), UN Women and the World Health Organization (WHO), said, “This medically unnecessary, and often times painful, humiliating and traumatic practice must end.” Women and girls are often forced to undergo virginity testing for various reasons, including requests from parents or potential partners to establish marriage eligibility or even from potential employers. The practice has “no scientific or clinical basis” and that “there is no examination that can prove a girl or woman has had sex”, as the “appearance of girl’s or woman’s hymen cannot prove whether they have had sexual intercourse or are sexually active or not.” Virginity testing reinforces stereotypes and gender inequality. It’s a violation of the rights of girls and women, which can be detrimental to their physical, psychological and social well-being. The examination can be “painful, humiliating and traumatic.” The founder and National Coordinator of Social Workers Sierra Leone, Hassan Koroma, confirmed that “virginity testing” is being practiced in the country. The practice is to deter premarital sex as parents take pride in the sexual purity of their daughters before marriage. “The virginity testing practice causes children to question their existence. The practice promotes stigmatization and causes emotional and psychological attacks with yourself,” he said. He went on to say, “The act destroys healthy relationships between parents and their children as usually there is disconnection from people you depend on for love, care and support. This practice violates the choice of girls’ body. They cannot be the same forever.” Marian Sesay, mother of a 16-year old girl on Circular Road in Freetown, said she could not imagine putting her daughter through such a traumatic experience. “I have heard of people taking their daughters to some old lady to check them and find out if they have started having sex. This is shameful and I detest the practice,” she said. “I have spoken to my daughter about the dangers of teenage pregnancy and early sex,” she said. “Health professionals can be great agents for change,” said Dr. Princess Nothema Simelela, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Family, Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health. “Virginity testing has no medical or clinical basis. People and health professionals should refuse to carry out the harmful practice, and educate the public about this,” she noted, adding, in doing so, they would be “upholding the Hippocratic oath of ‘do no harm’ and safeguarding the human rights of girls and women in their care.” “It is common for health professionals to perform virginity testing on victims of rape, supposedly to ascertain whether or not rape occurred. The procedure is deemed “unnecessary” and “can cause pain and mimic the original act of sexual violence, exacerbating survivors’ sense of disempowerment and cause re-victimisation,” said the UN Agencies. “Given that these procedures are unnecessary and potentially harmful, they must never be carried out,” the joint statement read, calling for a collaborative response across societies, supported by the public health community and all health professionals.
By David Thoronka
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