Guidance – Virginity testing and hymenoplasty multi-agency guidance – Department of Health and Social Care

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The government has made it illegal to carry out, offer or aid and abet virginity testing or hymenoplasty in any part of the UK, as part of the Health and Care Act 2022.It is also illegal for UK nationals and residents to do these things outside the UK.

Virginity testing and hymenoplasty are forms of violence against women and girls and are part of the cycle of so called ‘honour-based’ abuse. Women and girls are coerced, forced and shamed into undergoing these procedures, often pressurised by family members or their intended husbands’ family in the name of supposedly upholding honour and to fulfil the requirement that a woman remains ‘pure’ before marriage. Some practitioners issue a certificate to prove ‘virginity’ after a virginity test or hymenoplasty, while some will simply tell the family or community members whether a woman or girl has ‘passed’ a virginity test.

Both virginity testing and hymenoplasty can be precursors to child or forced marriage and other forms of family and/or community coercive behaviours, including physical and emotional control. Women who ‘fail’ a virginity test, are found to have undergone a hymen reconstruction, or do not bleed on their wedding night are likely to experience further so called ‘honour-based’ abuse including emotional and physical abuse, family or community disownment and even honour killings.

The practices are degrading and intrusive. They can lead to extreme psychological trauma in the victim, and can provoke conditions including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The practices have been linked to suicide. They can be physically harmful. For example, virginity testing can result in damage to the hymen, tears and damage to the vaginal wall, bleeding, and infection. The risk of infection is also high in hymenoplasty, which has the added risks of acute bleeding during the procedure, scarring and narrowing of the opening of the vagina and sexual difficulties.

Virginity testing and hymenoplasty are considered to have a similar level of seriousness to assault occasioning actual bodily harm (assault to injury in Scotland). This is in recognition of the physical and psychological harm they can cause to the individual who is subjected to them. This level of seriousness also reflects the controlling attitudes that underpin the practices.

As with other forms of so called ‘honour-based’ abuse, these practices often take place behind closed doors, in highly conservative communities and cultures. Because of this, the numbers of women and girls that are subjected to these practices are not known. Although prevalence is unclear, there is evidence of women and girls being under intense pressure to undergo virginity testing and hymenoplasty.

Victims may also take years to come forward. This could be due to not knowing that the abuse was abnormal or wrong at the time, feeling shame about their sexual experiences or sexual abuse, having been taught that speaking out against family and/or the community is wrong, or being scared about the repercussions of speaking out. As such, the physical signs of abuse may not be present at the time of disclosure, but psychological damage is likely to remain. This should be taken into account when interacting with victims of these practices.

As with all forms of so called ‘honour-based’ abuse, there are many barriers to victims disclosing information and reporting what has happened to them. It is therefore important that, if information regarding either settings or individuals involved in these practices is obtained, this intelligence is shared either with police, or anonymously through Crimestoppers.

Strategies to tackle the prevalence of violence against women and girls, reduce the inequalities in healthcare and tackle the harmful misogynistic views and attitudes towards women and their sexuality are being taken forward across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The banning of these procedures is one part of this important work.

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