Mumbai (Women`s Feature Service) - In Madhya Pradesh about 150 Dalit (downtrodden caste) and tribal women were subjected to virginity tests during a state government-sponsored mass marriage in Shahdol recently.
Virginity testing is always discriminatory, highly invasive and often involuntary, as it was in the Madhya Pradesh case. It has been at the centre of a great deal of controversy and debate the world over, especially in places like Turkey and in several African countries. While governments often are directly responsible for abuses in the course of implementing policies or projects that regulate women`s sexual and reproductive decision-making and actions, social and cultural norms go to enforce or reinforce the limited choices women have when it comes to sexuality, reproduction and child bearing.
According to Parijata Devi, 35, Director - Western India, ISKCON communications, Mumbai, ancient Vedic scriptures say that in every situation of life women should be protected. "The Vedas, the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism, uphold marriage and condemn pre-marital sex. But to test woman for her virginity in order to facilitate her participation in a mass marriage is a highly insensitive and humiliating act. If the government felt that `unqualified` women should be refrained from participating in the event, they should have devised some other methods of filtering out `unwanted` people instead of humiliating them like this," she adds.
Shocking as this particular incident may be, it is not for the first time that such tests have been conducted, reveals Dr Narendra Gupta of Prayas, an organisation working for the upliftment of the poor, in Chittorgarh, Rajasthan. The medieval practice is common amongst the Sansis, Kanjars, Bediya, Nut, Bagariya, Mogiya and Bavari tribes in Rajasthan. Most of them had been declared as denotified tribes, which means they were deemed as criminal tribes. He cites the case of Mevar, 19, of the Sansi tribe in Arneaneel village of Tonk district, Rajasthan, who was tortured by her husband using the centuries old custom of `Kukari ki Rasam` (thread ritual), where a skein of thread is used to detect the presence of an intact hymen. This happened nine years ago.
Gupta, who runs gender sensitivity campaigns in the state, says sex work by women of these castes is socially accepted but only daughters are put into the trade, not daughters-in-law. Virginity testing was started by the men folk of these castes to ensure that their women had not got into sex work before marriage. Now, the men use it to ensure the servility of women and also to settle scores with other men. Since this practice is observed within the community, which is in any case extremely poor with widespread illiteracy and social insecurity, society at large is unaware of it.
The state has done very little to stop such practices and, ironically, in the latest instance in Madhya Pradesh, it was the Bharatiya Janata Party government that had carried out the virginity tests in the state. As Gupta points out, only a widespread social reform movement, education and an improvement in livelihood opportunities can address the problem.
Dr Ajay Khare, Convenor, Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, Madhya Pradesh, describes this incident as an attack on the dignity and self-esteem of those girls who are being married under the government scheme. "The state government should remember that India is a signatory to the United Nation`s CEDAW (Convention on Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women). We have demanded immediate action against the erring officials responsible for the virginity tests and the state government should apologise to all the women who were compelled to undergo it," he says.
"In today`s times, where we are happy that homosexuality has been de-criminalised, why are we adopting an 18th century custom?" raged Dr Anita Ghai, a feminist and disability rights activist. According to her, these virginity tests need to be understood in the larger context of attacks on women`s right to public space and privacy. Incidents like the attack on women pub-goers in Mangalore in January this year and these virginity tests should be understood as a backlash against women`s activism and democratic change.
"Gender equality policies have underscored the fact that the practice of virginity testing is discriminatory, invasive, unfair and impinges on the dignity of young girls from poverty-stricken backgrounds," says Ghai, who is a Reader in the Department of Psychology, Jesus Mary College, Delhi.
Whether it is the virginity test or pregnancy tests, concerns have been expressed on the role of the doctor who conducts the examination. Explains Dr Mandakini Parihar, Chairperson, Family Welfare Committee, Federation of Obstetric & Gynaecological Societies of India (FOGSI), "A pregnancy test is simply done by a urine test or if there is a need to be very sure then a blood test or an abdominal sonography is undertaken. There is no need to do an internal examination to confirm a pregnancy. In contrast, a virginity test is done by examining the vaginal area to check whether the hymen is intact or not." Parihar, who has been a practicing gynaecologist for almost 20 years in Mumbai, adds, "This type of testing is emotionally and psychologically very painful and sometimes can even lead to an aversion to sexual intercourse."
Commenting on the government scheme and the role of doctors, she says, "While there may be some people misusing the mass marriage scheme, a majority stand to benefit from it. So no one has the right to check whether a woman is sexually active, a virgin or even pregnant for that matter. Considering that a large percentage of the people at the ceremony was tribal, and that it is common for boys and girls from tribal communities to engage in pre-marital sexual behaviour, I don`t think doctors have any right to subject the girls to a virginity test," she reiterates.
The state government has denied the incident, terming it as a routine check, says Nilanju Dutta, Project Associate with the Violence Intervention Team of JAGORI, a women organisation in Delhi. The senior administration official`s statement that some of the women looked "dubious" cannot in any way validate the act. She adds, "The government is under the impression that in order to avail of certain social welfare benefits, women will hand it the right to violate their privacy and even their bodies. Does the state have the right to impose a rule that a woman can get married only if she is a `virgin`? It seems that the virginity test is also an attempt by the BJP-headed state government to impose its particular brand of feudal, Brahminical culture on tribal women in the name of `Kanyadaan`."
The incident occurred on June 30 when the brides had assembled for a mass marriage in Shahdol district, 350 kilometres from Bhopal, the state capital. It was a part of the Mukhya-mantri Kanyadaan Yojna (Chief Minister`s `giving away the bride` programme), a welfare measure, that was started in April 2006. Marriages under the scheme are solemnised free of cost and all arrangements are made by the district administration. Each couple is also provided assistance in the form of household items worth Rs 5,000 (US$1=Rs 48.4).
It`s ironical indeed, that a scheme meant to support women has ended up depriving them of their basic right to dignity and privacy.
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