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Virginity Testing (Prohibition)

Volume 686: debated on Tuesday 15 December 2020

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit virginity testing procedures; to make associated provision about education; and for connected purposes.

When I mention to hon. Members and my constituents that so-called virginity testing still takes place, their reaction has universally been the same: how? How is this medieval practice still taking place in modern Britain? It was brought to my attention recently by a superb piece of work by BBC “Newsbeat”, which uncovered the fact that it still takes place across the country, and it has been picked up more recently by The Sun, Sunday Express and The Northern Echo.

Those conversations usually move swiftly on to ask how the practice has been permitted all this time, especially when the World Health Organisation and the United Nations want to see it banned. President Macron and the French Government are also moving in that direction. Although the President of the Republic and I, along with many Members of this House, may disagree on some things, clearly this is another issue that highlights a common cause with our friends in Europe—we agree on it and should work together on it for the betterment of the world.

The United Kingdom has an enviable record on programmes to support women and girls worldwide, especially in education. They have been supported by former Prime Minister David Cameron and my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) when she was in that post, and by Lord Hague as Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister when he was in that role and its current incumbent. A huge amount of work has been done in this area by my friend Baroness Sugg, who recently left her post. Recently, the work has been reaffirmed by the Prime Minister with his support for the education of women and girls worldwide. How then are we in a position where virginity testing still takes place in the UK? Britain has shown a strong lead on other issues internationally, such as female genital mutilation, and I pay tribute to Nimco Ali and others for their work in this area.

I suppose two questions need to be answered. First, does so-called virginity testing have any basis in science at all? Secondly, if it does, do we even want it? On the first question, the World Health Organisation is clear:

“As shown in a systematic review on virginity testing, the examination has no scientific merit or clinical indication”.

That could not be clearer: there is no scientific evidence at all. At a cost of between £150 and £300, according to the BBC investigation revealing the 21 clinics still doing the tests in this country, the practice should be banned on the basis of fraud alone.

The second, bigger question is what it says about us as a society if we allow the practice to continue. What does it say about our attitude towards what is acceptable to women? Women are not objects to be examined, tested and selected by men. Crucially, there is an impact of the tests on those affected. Reading from the WHO report, there are

“immediate and long-term consequences that are detrimental to…physical, psychological and social well-being... The harmful practice of virginity testing is a social, cultural and political issue, and its elimination will require a comprehensive societal response supported by the public health community and health professionals.”

I was delighted yesterday to receive an email from some of those public health professionals in the UK. It was from two nurses who work in sexual health and specialist sexual violence work, and they are working with the Royal College of Nursing to push for this change as well.

It is not just about the impact this has on individual people; it is also about the impact this has on us and what it says about us as a society. According to the WHO report again:

“It further reinforces socio-cultural norms that perpetuate women’s inequality, including stereotyped views of female morality and sexuality, and serves to exercise control over women and girls. Virginity testing violates well-established human rights…such as the right to be protected from discrimination based on sex”—

because it always happens to women—

“the right to life, liberty and security of person [including physical integrity]; the right to the highest attainable standard of health; and the rights of the child”,

because this often happens to children and young women.

This pseudo-scientific practice is also clearly linked to forced marriages and so-called honour killings. I am not quite sure what is honourable about people killing their own children. It should just be called the murdering of young people, but I am digressing. It is quite clearly a practice that needs to end. Ending this practice is our duty to women in this country and is our duty if we are to continue to show leadership globally on this issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Richard Holden, Mrs Maria Miller, Ms Nusrat Ghani, Meg Hillier, Sarah Champion, Sara Britcliffe, Nicola Richards, Fay Jones, Siobhan Baillie, Joy Morrissey Dehenna Davison and Jeremy Hunt, and present the Bill.

Richard Holden accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 8 January 2021, and to be printed (Bill 233).

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You will be aware that there is much debate outside the House about the provisions for the Christmas period and the relaxation of the coronavirus regulations. Am I right in thinking, given that the regulations governing Christmas were voted on explicitly by this House, that if there were any proposal to change them, that decision should not be one just for Ministers, but should be brought back to this House for a vote to take place on it before Christmas?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that point of order. As I understand it, Ministers may well have the power to change the Christmas regulations without coming back to the House. They have taken that power. Obviously, he has expressed a point of view that it would be desirable if they were to come back, but as I understand it, they do have the power to vary them if they feel it is appropriate. If I find that that is in any way incorrect, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I will inform him about any difference there might be from what I have said already.