A local educational authority in South Sumatra, Indonesia, sparked a recent controversy in Indonesia when it announced plans to carry out virginity testing for high school girls to combat the rise in promiscuity, teenage pregnancies and prostitution among young women in Indonesia. Following a massive public outcry from national and international women’s rights advocates, as well as opposition from more moderate politicians in Indonesia, the plan was eventually scrapped. This was the third attempt by politicians in Indonesia to make virginity testing mandatory in schools and the controversy highlights the obstacles faced by many young women and girls in accessing their right to education around the world.
Indonesia’s proposal to implement mandatory virginity testing would violate a girl’s right to education in multiple ways. Firstly, education would become inaccessible for girls who fail to pass the test, the implication being that only certified virgins should be able to enjoy their right to education. Secondly, the very threat of being tested may be enough to deter girls from continuing with school. Finally, it constitutes discrimination on the basis of sex and gender as the test targets only girls; there is no male equivalent of virginity testing and indeed there is no perceived need to regulate the sexual behavior of boys in the same way. Young men will not be deprived of their education for being sexually active.
Women’s rights advocates have claimed that such testing would violate a girl’s right to privacy and bodily integrity. It is akin to state sanctioned rape and it would likely cause further trauma for girls who have been victims of sexual assault or sexual abuse.
Virginity testing is a common practice before marriage in many countries where a high value is placed on the “purity” of the bride. In South Africa it has enjoyed a recent revival as a traditional community centered way of combatting the spread of HIV and AIDS. However, there is no sound medical basis for virginity testing – usually a test to see if the girl’s hymen is intact – as there may be many reasons a girl’s hymen can be broken, including as a result of playing sports, injuries or sexual assault.
Virginity testing in the context of education represents a further attack on a girl’s right to education when across the world girls face a disproportionate number of obstacles, compared to boys, to completing their education. Poverty, inequality and social attitudes all contribute to higher rates of non-participation and non-completion of education for girls. The perception that girls don’t need education if they are not going to work outside the home, family duties, lack of money to pay for schooling, early marriage, unsafe schools including the threat of sexual abuse, exploitation and harassment, expulsion due to early pregnancy, and conflict are just some of the obstacles to accessing education that girls across the world face.
The right to education as established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states that everyone has the right to education and the purpose of education must be directed “towards the full development of the human personality.” Katerina Tomasevski, former Special Rapporteur on the right to education, developed the “4As” approach as a way of assessing whether or not a state is meeting its international obligations on the right to education. Education must be available, accessible, acceptable, and adaptable. Finally, the provision of education must be founded on the basis of non-discrimination in terms of sex, gender, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation etc.
Schools – ideally spaces for encouraging personal growth and creativity – should not become further sites for the regulating of women’s and girls’ bodies and condemning female sexuality.
See how your age, gender, socio-economic status and geographical location can impact your right to education by playing UNESCO’s Mind the Gap game.
For further information on the right to education check out http://www.right-to-education.org/.