Women’s groups in India demand action against virginity tests

Leading women’s groups in India have called on the government to put an end to indignities against women such as making some of them undergo virginity tests and disrobing in public.

“It is shameful that governmental bodies treat women without any dignity,” says Sister Mary Scaria, one of 150 people from seven women’s organizations who demonstrated in New Delhi on July 29.

They gathered at Jantar Mantar, a downtown area set aside for public protests. The demonstration came in the wake of several recent reports where women were either stripped in public, or forced to undergo a physical examination to prove their virginity.

Later, the groups submitted a memorandum to the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, demanding action against such humiliations.

They also noted that there has been an increase in assaults on women which has created national indignation. According to the National Crime Reports Bureau, every hour there are two rapes, two kidnappings, four molestations and seven incidents of cruelty inflicted on Indian women from husbands and relatives.

The memorandum sought action against the Madhya Pradesh chief minister who authorized tests on 151 tribal women to ascertain their virginity. The State Welfare Department conducted a mass marriage ceremony for these women, but demanded they first undergo virginity tests before the government provided money to meet their wedding expenses.

Similarly in Kerala, southern India, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) forced Catholic nun Sister Sephy, who is accused of involvement in a murder case, to undergo a test to show that she was a virgin.

The CBI has been investigating the alleged murder of another nun, Sister Abhaya, 17 years ago. On July 17, it charged Sister Sephy and two priests with murder, destroying evidence and other offences related to the case.

The women’s groups condemned the virginity tests on the women as discriminatory, “highly invasive and often involuntary” and examples of society treating women as secondary citizens. Women now fear government and police officials, they added.

The women also protested the recent stripping of a 22-year-old girl on a busy road in Patna, Bihar, by four men who accused her of stealing a cell phone. The women also wanted the arrest of policemen who failed to stop the crime.

In another incident in Madhya Pradesh, a male teacher allegedly removed the upper garments of eight tribal girl students at a government school on the pretext of taking measurements for their uniforms.

The women’s groups have urged the government to educate police and government officials on human rights, gender sensitivity and equality.

Sister Scaria, a member of the Samvidhan Andolan (struggle for constitutional rights), an organization of Supreme Court lawyers, condemned the virginity tests as “insulting” and a sign of a “perverted mentality.” She also condemned the language the CBI used to describe Sister Sephy’s body.

“The court has not proved Sister Sephy guilty, the trial is still going on but no one has the right to humiliate a woman,” asserted the Charity of Jesus and Mary nun.

M.P. Raju, another lawyer at the protest meeting, says forced virginity tests amount to rape “even if it is for a trial in a case.” He also condemned the way the CBI described Sister Sephy’s body.

Annie Raja, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women, told UCA News that the CBI used “immoral and undignified language which is condemnable and violates the modesty of a woman.”

She noted that the 45-year-old nun’s body would obviously have undergone changes over the years. “How can you prove a murderer by examining someone’s body parts?” she asked, and called the test unscientific.

Christian groups at the protest included the CBCI women’s commission, the Protestant’s Joint Women Program and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). Other groups were secular and leftist associations.



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