Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Commentary: End International Complacency with Indonesia’s ‘Virginity Tests’

Female soldiers from the Indonesian Military (TNI) rehearsing for Kartini Day celebrations in Jakarta

Here’s an item missing from the agenda of this week’s meeting of the International Committee of Military Medicine (ICMM) in Bali: The Indonesian military’s so-called “virginity tests.”

The opening ceremony of the inter-governmental organization’s biennial world conference taking place from Sunday till Friday at the Bali Nusa Dua Convention Center reaped platitudes from Indonesia’s Vice President Jusuf Kalla. Kalla praised the ICMM conference as an opportunity to maintain “the relationship of brotherhood and neutrality” between military doctors. That relationship between the  representatives of the ICMM’s 110 member states appears to exclude any willingness to condemn the discrimination and suffering the Indonesian Military (TNI) imposes on  female recruits and fiancees of military officers through painful and humiliating “virginity testing.”

The ICMM can’t claim ignorance of this abhorrent practice. In March, Human Rights Watch wrote to the ICMM and 16 key members including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and the United States to share with them research that indicated that the TNI had for decades compelled female recruits and fiancees of military officers to undergo the invasive “two-finger test” to determine whether female applicants’ hymens are intact. Only those women with resources to either bribe military doctors or to tap powerful connections within the military or the government are spared that painful indignity. Human Rights Watch urged the ICMM to press the Indonesian military to abandon the practice. The ICMM has yet to respond to that request.

Why should the ICMM care that its Indonesian military hosts impose such “tests” as a condition of admission for female recruits and for fiancees of military officers?

Respect for international human rights standards, for starters. Virginity tests are a discriminatory form of gender-based violence against women. They have been recognized internationally as a violation of the prohibition against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment under Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 16 of the Convention against Torture, both of which Indonesia has ratified, as have most conference attendees.

As a medical organization, the ICMM should also respect the weight of evidence that has thoroughly discredited any claims that “virginity tests” do any more than inflict unneeded pain and trauma on women compelled to undergo them. That evidence includes World Health Organization guidelines issued in November 2014 that state: “There is no place for virginity (or ‘two-finger’) testing; it has no scientific validity.” If the military doctors and nurses at the ICMM conference would find unacceptable such abuses in their own countries’ militaries, they should make it clear to their hosts that such violations have no place in the Indonesian armed forces.

The ICMM should also be dismayed by the Indonesian armed forces’ response to criticism of the “virginity tests.” Although the TNI’s surgeon general, Maj. Gen. Daniel Tjen, recently stated that the military was reviewing its recruitment procedures, including the “virginity test” requirement for female recruits, he declined to provide any timetable for possible elimination of the procedure.  That’s likely because two of his colleagues are enthusiastic supporters of “virginity tests” as a metric for evaluating the suitability of female recruits. Military spokesman Faud Basya on May 14 defended “virginity tests” as a means of screening-out inappropriate female recruits. “If they are no longer virgins, if they are naughty, it means their mentality is not good,” Basya told The Guardian. TNI Commander Gen. Moeldoko on May 16 praised “virginity tests” as an indispensable “measure of morality” of female recruits.

Those statements are more than an appalling defense of the indefensible. They highlight deep contempt for international human rights standards and accepted medical practice at the very highest levels of the Indonesian military. Such statements also display a profound lack of sensitivity to the physical and psychological suffering that these “virginity tests” inflict on untold numbers of women.

The ICMM national military delegations gathered in Bali this week have a choice. They can maintain their feigned ignorance about the pain, trauma and humiliation that the Indonesian military inflicts on women through its “virginity tests.” Or the ICMM can stand on the side of non-discrimination, basic decency and the promotion of professionalism in the armed forces, and demand that these “tests” stop. For the Indonesian women who suffer these abuses, the ICMM’s silence is deafening.

Phelim Kine is deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. (JG Photo/Yudhi Sukma Wijaya)

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