A recent virginity-testing controversy in India highlights a trend throughout the globe of discrimination against poor women in developing countries.
Dressed in bridal attire, more than 450 Indian women from India’s poorest region flocked to the site of a mass wedding ceremony sponsored by the government. But moments before the event began, the women were allegedly subjected to virginity and pregnancy testing by the very government that claimed to be providing them with an opportunity to climb the social ladder.
The Times of India reported that women taking part in the ceremony were told moments before the event that they would have to undergo virginity and pregnancy tests, subjecting the women to a government-sponsored violation of privacy.
Those who approve of such measures argue that women relying on the government for an affordable marriage should be expected to adhere to standards mandated through the program — including the requirement that the women enter marriage as a virgin.
Yet it’s that very mentality that’s being questioned by human rights observers throughout the world who claim poor women are caught in a cycle of discrimination and suppression.
“Such a shameful act where girls had to reportedly undergo tests to prove their chastity to avail the government’s financial aid were sinful and could not be tolerated in a sane society,” Indian National Commission for Women Chairperson Girija Vyas told the International Business Times.
While the alleged forced virginity and pregnancy tests are still under investigation, one Indian health worker, Durga Malviya, told local newspapers in the village of Hardu that pregnancy tests were conducted.
Another rural community welfare worker, Sushila Verma, told the India Times that tests were in fact given to women.
The Betul district administration, which was responsible for the marriage ceremonies, indicated it had ordered an inquiry into the allegations, claiming it did not give orders for officials to conduct virginity tests.
Yet officials determined that at least nine women were pregnant, making them ineligible to participate in the ceremony. The India Times reports that while roughly 450 women showed up to take part in the ceremony, only 380 women went through with it.
“Yes, their registration was cancelled and we took away the items given to them earlier. When the officers from Health Department conducted certain checks on them, then it came to our knowledge that several of them were pregnant too,” Verma told the India Times.
Life for India’s women
In India, the odds are stacked against women, particularly those from poor backgrounds, as the opportunity to rise on their own out of the lowest income brackets is limited.
According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, an estimated 16,373 women were raped in 2002 — and that only accounts for reported cases. Bureau statistics also indicate that every 3.5 minutes, an Indian woman is the victim of a crime.
According to the World Bank, men are more than twice as likely to hold “salaried” jobs. Female workers are more likely to depend on daily wages. While men outnumber women in India at a rate of 1,000 to 929, women outnumber men in rural labor jobs, with a rate of 85 men for every 100 women employed.
It’s that lack of choice and income disparity that leads women to take part in mass marriage ceremonies, because those stemming from poor families do not have the means to provide males with dowries. According to 2002 National Crime Records Bureau statistics, nearly 8,000 women were murdered in 2002 due to dowry-related issues. More than 12,000 committed suicide between 1997 and 2001 over dowry-related issues.
While discrimination against women in India is noted by human rights organization, it’s a problem that persists throughout the globe, particularly among women from poor backgrounds.
According to United Nations estimates, more than 70 percent of the people living in poverty worldwide are women. The cycle of poverty and discriminatory practices toward women have allowed the persistence of societies that do not afford women equal rights.
“Poverty is more than lack of income. It is also a lack of security, lack of voice, lack of choice,” an Amnesty International Report on women, violence and poverty states.
The recent actions in India highlight a persistent trend throughout the globe of discriminatory actions against poor women, particularly in developing countries.
While organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have worked tirelessly to promote women’s rights throughout the world, the job is far from over.
“In my line of work — human rights research and advocacy — violence against women and girls is a constant,” Human Rights Watch’s Janet Walsh wrote in a column published through CNN. “My colleagues and I interview hundreds of women and girls around the world every year who endure domestic violence, rape, trafficking, female genetical mutilation and other oabuses. We hear women’s accounts of cruelty, but also of resilience and courage.”
Discrimination stemming from patriarchal society
In January, Indian scholar and economist Prabhat Patnaik said India has a higher rate of discrimination against women than even the poorest areas of Africa.
His comments are tied to more than just the country’s treatment of poor women. Foeticide, the abortion of a fetus based on its gender, is a practice that Patnaik said is built into the patriarchal structure of Indian society.
According to 2011 Indian census figures, female fetuses were aborted at a rate of 1 million per year.
At the heart of the foeticide issue in India is the dowry system, a practice that, despite a national ban, continues today, according to Patnaik.
The issue in India has taken center stage thanks to the advocacy of actor Aamir Khan, who is pushing a Maharashtra government proposal to halt discriminatory abortion practices altogether.
“I think female foeticide is a very serious issue,” Khan told reporters, according to IBN. And if it continues the way it is, it will get worse. I am so happy that Maharashtra government is likely to propose this.”
Khan followed up his comments by claiming he is pro-choice, but that decisions should not be based on the gender of the child.
The particular issue of foeticide has become a source of concern in Canada. A 2012 study looked at women in Canada who were born in South Korea and India. When giving birth to their second and third child, these women delivered males at a significantly higher rate.
The St. Michaels Hospital study indicated that among women who were born in India and were giving birth to their third child, the ratio of male to female children was 136 to 100. The comparable ratio for Canadian women was 105 boys for every 100 girls, according to Psychology of Medicine.
The Toronto Star conducted a survey and discovered that concerns of gender-specific abortions led six of the city’s hospitals to not allow hospital staff to reveal the sex of a child before 30 weeks. As noted by the Psychology of Medicine, those hospitals are located in areas with large South Asian immigrant populations.
‘He does not want another daughter’
The concern that women were transferring long-held, anti-female cultural views caused concern among Canadians, yet that concern also came along with controversy of its own. A Canadian Medical Association Journal editorial encouraged doctors to fall in line with the hospitals profiled by the Toronto Star and stop informing parents of the sex of a child until it reached 30 weeks, a point at which abortion would not be an option.
But that position wasn’t popular among everyone.
“The technician staff is pleased to share that happy news with family wanting that information,” Lakeridge Health spokesperson Aaron Lazarus told Psychology of Medicine.
The same controversy is felt in the U.S., where a 2011 University of California-San Francisco study indicated there could be a connection between Indian-born women and gender-specific abortions carried out in the U.S.
The study looked at 65 Indian immigrants living in New York, California and New Jersey who admitted to having sex-selective abortions.
During the course of the interview process, between 2004 and 2009, researchers discovered that 89 percent of the women who became pregnant claim they aborted their pregnancy after discovering it was a girl. Those who carried their female children to term claim they were subject to abuse, according to the study.
“When my second child was also a girl, she (mother-in-law) did not want to hold her after the birth,” one woman highlighted in the study said as she was about to discover the sex of her third child. “If not (a boy), I will have to get an abortion because he (husband) does not want another daughter.”