Indonesia has subjected policewomen to 'humiliating' virginity tests for decades

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Marco Werman: Here’s a dilemma: Indonesia is trying to increase the number of women in its national police force. That’s a good thing for equality. At the same time, it’s also requiring female recruits to undergo virginity tests as part of their training. There’s your dilemma. Human Rights Watch issued a report on this, and Andreas Harsono did the research for it. He’s in Jakarta. I asked him first to describe these virginity tests, and a word of caution, what we’re about to hear may not be appropriate for younger listeners.


Andreas Harsono: It basically asks the police applicants to go into an examination hall, 20 in a group. They’re asked to strip naked, down to their bra and underwear, and then two by two, they’re asked to enter a smaller room where they were asked to take their underwear off. They asked them to lie down on the bed, open their legs. The female examiner will then use two fingers to check the vagina of the applicant.


Werman: So, they’re presumably checking if the hymen is still in tact. This is just degrading. Is this what every female applicant for the police force goes through?


Harsono: This problem is not new. It’s been going on for decades. In fact, one of the oldest police women that we interviewed took the test in her 1965 class, 49 years ago. Lately, the police say that “No, this is not a virginity test. This is a reproductive health examination.” They want to know whether there are infections or diseases. The thing is, you don’t do that kind of examination using your fingers. You can check it through the blood, the urine and with other equipment.


Werman: How do Indonesian police authorities justify this practice?


Harsono: They have mixed reactions. The official line says “No, this is not a virginity test. This is for reproductive health.” Meanwhile, the one that isn’t official, but also involving a 3-star, 4-star general says “Yes, we do virginity tests” because they said “We want to have a woman with good morals. Not sex workers, not those involved in frequent sex to join the force.” That is the unofficial, but in my opinion, more open, more transparent answer to these virginity tests.


Werman: I read that female police recruits in Indonesia have to be between the ages of 17 and 22 and single. Are they eventually allowed to marry and remain on the police force?


Harsono: Yes. After they join the force, they are given 2 years to at least not get pregnant. But if they are pregnant before 2 years of being on the force, they have to leave. But after 2 years, they can still work with the police until their retirement.


Werman: You at Human Rights Watch, you put out this report. What was known, what did you know about this practice prior to your research?”


Harsono: We heard quite a lot of remorse about these virginity tests, but no one really took the time or the energy to find the victims one by one. I am a man. It was extremely difficult for me to get in touch with these young ladies and ask them about the obvious sensitive subject. We spent time finding people who would like to talk.  But later, they began to open up and they said “Yes, that’s what happened.” Some of them were ready to talk in front of a camera, although of course only showing their silhouette.


Werman: Tell me about one of these women that you met, either a new recruit or somebody who’s more veteran. What was their motivation to go on camera, even though they were silhouetted, and tell you about this practice?


Harsono: They thought that the test has to be stopped. It’s degrading, it’s humiliating, and they said that it hurt. Although, I have to say that some other applicants who took the test said they don’t want to have sex workers joining the police, “So I think it’s okay.” Some of them voluntarily agreed to take the test, they agreed with the principle. Although all of them said it hurt, it was humiliating and degrading.


Werman: Listeners, you can see some of the actual testimony of some of those witnesses that Andreas spoke with at PRI.ORG. Who in Indonesia is trying to change this policy, or even challenge it?


Harsono: Actually, it was the policewomen themselves. They’ve tried at least 3 times -- in 1980, in the late 1990s, and in 2010. They even managed to persuade a top general on the police force to stop it. It was orally said at one point that it should not happen. But again, it reappeared over the last 50 years.


Werman: As I said earlier, the paradox here is that Indonesia is trying to double the number of women in its police force, a sign of opening up, but it’s still using a virginity test. It seems really bizarre.


Harsono: It’s primitive, it’s degrading, it’s discriminatory. You can’t do this kind of test towards men, of course. It simply should be stopped. We warned President Joko Widodo, the new president of Indonesia, to instruct his military commander, his police commander to say simply just to stop the tests, stop the two-finger test.


Werman: Andreas Harsono is a researcher for Human Rights Watch. He’s based in Indonesia, in Jakarta. He reported the story of the continued use of virginity tests on female police recruits. Human Rights Watch is calling for an end to the practice. Andreas, thank you very much for speaking with us.


Harsono: Thank you so much.