Indonesia / Questionable virginity tests for female police and military recruits

By: Tom O'Connell - Posted on: August 29, 2018 | Current Affairs

The practice of attempting to verify the virginity – and ostensibly the morality – of female police and military recruits has been in place in Indonesia since as early as 1965. Human Rights Watch recently called for an end to it, citing a lack of women personnel for United Nations peacekeeping missions. According to Jakarta Feminist Discussion Group founder Kate Walton, “one’s sexual status has no link to one’s morals”

Indonesian military and police recruits – those who happen to be female are subject to an anachronistic, decades-old practice Photo: AFP

Human Rights Watch recently called for Indonesia to cease its more than half-century practice of “virginity tests” for female applicants to its national police force and military, and even for the fiancées of military officers, in order to fill a shortage of UN peacekeepers. Why do you think this is being done?
Supposedly it is to determine whether a woman is of good morals or not. Premarital sex remains taboo in Indonesia, and is broadly seen as a sign of an immoral woman. The thinking goes that policewomen and female soldiers and officers, plus the wives of men in the military and the police, should be of a better moral class than the average woman – how are they to guard and protect the country if they cannot guard and protect themselves?

Are these “two finger” virginity tests even a valid way to determine if a woman has had sexual intercourse?
No, neither the ‘two finger’ method (in which the index and middle fingers are used to find the hymen) nor other methods such as using a torch to inspect a woman’s genitals can actually determine whether a woman has had sexual intercourse. Hymens can and often do break way before a woman becomes sexually active, such as through sport, while some women are not even born with hymens. It’s a completely unscientific method.

Is there anyone in power in Indonesia advocating for ending the practice?
A number of retired policewomen have done so, such as Brigadier General Sri Rumiati (Ret.), who has said that the tests are in violation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Women’s groups also frequently raise the issue in the media and at major protests such as International Women’s Day. The issue comes up every year, and each time, the police and the military say they will end or have ended the practice, yet it seems to remain in place.

Would more Indonesian women be interested in becoming cops and soldiers if this practice were ended?
I think women who are already interested would be more likely to pursue these careers, yes. Women who have undergone the tests say that the process is incredibly embarrassing, not to mention potentially career-ending if they are determined not to be a virgin. But generally speaking, the average person isn’t interested in becoming a policewoman or a solider for a variety of reasons – difficulty of entering, including fees (both official and unofficial) that must be paid, hard work conditions, and low pay.

How do normal citizens feel about virgin tests? What are the barriers to ending the practice?
Many people don’t actually known that virginity tests are used on candidates – a quick poll I conducted on Twitter at the end of June showed that one-third of the almost 700 respondents were unaware of the tests. That said, many do feel that policewomen and female soldiers must be of ‘good moral character’, and although they do not support the invasive physical tests, they believe that there must be some sort of check in place to ensure that ‘immoral’ women do not enter the forces. The practice could be easily ended if the heads of police and military demanded it be eradicated; unfortunately, convincing them of the discriminatory and shameful nature of the tests is not an easy task.

Kate Walton is an Australian journalist, activist and founder of the Jakarta Feminist Discussion group in Jakarta, where she is based. 

This article was published in the August 2018 edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here.