x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Rights groups slam Indian state officials for virginity tests

The tests were performed on 200 women taking part in a mass wedding in Madhya Pradesh state. Suryatapa Bhattacharya reports from New Delhi

NEW DELHI // Rights activists have accused authorities in the state of Madhya Pradesh of carrying out illegal virginity and pregnancy tests on poor women hoping to be married in state-sponsored mass weddings.

The tests were performed on 200 women taking part in a ceremony in the state's Betul district. At least nine women were turned away for failing the tests.

"In whatever way these tests were conducted, that is not the rule. This is more than illegal. It is defaming their image," said Anurag Modi, who runs the Shramik Adivasi Sanghatan, an organisation that works with tribal and indigenous people in India. State officials "had no business to do that".

Most of the women who were turned away were from the tribal communities, Mr Modi said.

Mass weddings sponsored by state governments are common in India.

The government pays for the ceremonies and the brides receive 15,000 rupees (Dh950) worth of gifts from the government, including utensils, clothes and a bicycle.

An inquiry has been ordered by the state government, said Rajesh Mishra, the chief revenue officer of the Betul district, who oversees the distribution of funds for the weddings.

"I will be able to pass a judgement after the report is filed," Mr Mishra said.

He appointed a woman to lead the investigation "because this is a sensitive case and there are ladies involved and I know women feel more comfortable talking to each other".

In Madhya Pradesh, mass weddings take place every two months, according to Mr Mishra. Religious ceremonies are performed based on a group's religion. Last week's mass wedding was Hindu.

"Anyone who wishes to get married, where the girl is above the age of 18 can participate in this," Mr Mishra said.

Mr Modi said the state health department officials performed the examinations not at a hospital but before the ceremony at the grounds where it was being held.

During the examination, the laxity of the hymen is tested to determine whether the bride is a virgin. It was unclear whether the test was carried out by a man or a woman.

"Never mind the test, how are you able to ask a woman at her wedding: 'Are you pregnant?' This is an insult to the entire tribe the woman comes from," Mr Modi said.

"She now has to return to her village where no doubt her community will make her an outcast."

This is not the first time the tests have been performed at a mass wedding in Madhya Pradesh.

In 2009, there were media reports that 151 women were made to have similar tests in the state's Shahdol district.

Sandhya Shaily, the state president of the All India Democratic Women's Alliance, said she had confronted authorities on earlier cases.

Ms Shaily said she was told the exams were necessary to stop couples from marrying twice to collect the dowries.

"I have repeatedly told the authorities that they should give the young men who seek to marry, a job, invest in the education of the future children of these couples," Ms Shaily said.

"But you cannot go around asking women to show you their stomach and then declare that someone is pregnant if their tummy is puffy."

Although the government has banned local officials from deciding who qualifies for mass weddings, members of the village council, or panchayat, continue to defy orders.

The weddings cannot take place without the involvement of village leaders, said Kalpana Meena, the vice chairman of the Jilla Panchayat in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh.

The village leaders have the task of endorsing applications from couples who are unable to pay for a ceremony, Mr Meena said.

The leaders are the ones that sort through the applications, vouching for those with financial needs.

"This is a public welfare scheme where the couples come to their local representative, who then approach a bigger civil body, such as the Janpad Panchayat, who then decide how many couples can be financed and set the date for the weddings," he said.

"I cannot comment on this since the investigation is under way but it is a matter of concern."

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae