July 25, 2022
ERDENET, ORKHON PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — Last year, the Mongolian government restricted schools’ use of so-called virginity tests, a decades-old, internationally condemned practice of checking girls for signs of sexual activity, usually via a vaginal exam. But when 16-year-old Alungoo D. arrived at her school in this northern province one day in January, she discovered little had changed.
Her school doctor told female students they would undergo a “medical examination” — a euphemism for a virginity test — on campus, something last year’s order prohibits. Additional government rules require schools to get both a student’s and her parents’ consent beforehand. Alungoo says she refused, as did four classmates, but school officials told the girls they had no choice. “We do not want to be part of a girls’ examination, but the school administration demands and insists that it is mandatory,” Alungoo says. (Her full name and her school’s name are being withheld to protect her identity and prevent harassment. There are just a few dozen schools in the province.)
In the school doctor’s office, Alungoo removed her underwear and submitted to a vaginal inspection. She was uncomfortable, nervous and sweating. Later, she told her mother, Sarangerelt D., what happened. “No one has a right to undress and examine our children without getting consent from their parents,” Sarangerelt says. (She is not being identified by her full name to protect her daughter’s identity.)
The school doctor, Saranchimeg Badamjav, confirms the exams took place despite the government orders. However, she says, no girl was examined without her permission. “In Mongolia, there is a high level of pregnancy among adolescent girls,” Saranchimeg says. “That is why the girls’ examination is a method to prevent unwanted pregnancy.”
Alungoo’s school is not unique in apparently sidestepping the government rules. Beautiful Hearts, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for women’s and children’s rights, says girls from at least 10 schools around the country have reported undergoing virginity tests against their will since last year’s order was issued.
Pressure to test even girls who don’t consent, Beautiful Hearts officials say, comes from school administrators and doctors who claim the exams prevent pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and abuse. But the central government also deserves blame, as its directives regarding the tests were lax and enforcement has been close to nonexistent, according to the group’s research. For example, because last year’s order only applies to virginity tests done at school, some administrators are having their students examined at local health centers.
Khorloo Khukhnokhoi, GPJ Mongolia
Khorloo Khukhnokhoi, GPJ Mongolia
Javzandolgor Purevsuren oversees student health issues at the General Education Agency, a branch of the Ministry of Education and Science in charge of carrying out education-related policies. She acknowledges that some schools have been improperly conducting exams. “We agree that a girls’ examination is an act violating girls’ rights,” Javzandolgor says. “We are planning specific actions to stop these examinations” entirely.
The Ministry of Health doesn’t play a direct role in virginity testing. However, Bat-Erdene Baljinnyam, a health education specialist at the ministry, says, “The ministry does not recommend mandatory girls’ examinations. If it should be conducted, we require that these examinations should comply with the ministerial recommendations and guidelines.”
Mongolian girls — usually ages 15 and older, but sometimes as young as 12 — have routinely undergone virginity testing since the 1990s. The procedure is usually similar to a gynecological checkup, with doctors using ultrasounds or endoscopes to, for example, look for a ruptured hymen — though this type of test, according to the United Nations, has “no scientific merit.”
Virginity tests have been documented in at least 20 countries, according to the U.N. They’re often performed on girls and women under the auspices of preventing disease or investigating sexual assaults, although in Indonesia in the 2010s, women police recruits were forced to undergo them. The U.N. has condemned the practice as “medically unnecessary, and oftentimes painful, humiliating and traumatic.” There is no physical examination that can definitively determine virginity, the U.N. says, and the process itself can trigger anxiety and depression and diminish self-esteem.
Graphics by Matt Haney, GPJ
Graphics by Matt Haney, GPJ
In a 2020 survey conducted in part by Young Voices Group, a Mongolian protest initiative fighting to outlaw the exams, nearly 3 in 4 girls said they were not asked for their permission prior to a virginity test. Almost half said that, even if they refused to participate, a school doctor examined them anyway. If a girl opted out of an exam, she was usually not formally punished by her school; however, according to the survey, she sometimes suffered reputational damage. If she was examined, and a doctor found signs of sexual activity, students say, she was rarely offered help — but she often became the target of rumors and harassment.
Under pressure from activists, Mongolia’s education ministry has issued a series of restrictions on the tests. First, officials required schools to notify parents and students in advance of virginity tests and obtain permission from both. Last year, partly in response to Global Press Journal reporting, the ministry barred administrators from conducting tests on campus. “It is proper to examine girls and boys to prevent adolescents from sexually transmitted diseases,” says Badamkhand Tumurbaatar, a specialist in charge of child health education issues at the Family, Child and Youth Development Agency of Orkhon province. “Most importantly, it should be conducted in a designated environment based on consent.” (Boys rarely go through similar screenings.)
Yet the government rules are largely toothless. They don’t say how officials should monitor whether schools follow the directives, nor do they specify penalties for schools that ignore them. “Demanding girls to get examined by force and without their consent in itself is a huge human rights violation,” says Egshiglen Khosbayar, a Beautiful Hearts staff psychologist.
Advocates are calling for the government to ban virginity tests altogether and punish schools that continue to perform them. “We will demand the government adopt a specific procedure with provisions, which would stop girls’ examinations officially, and impose liability measures in case they are conducted,” Egshiglen says. Some groups have launched an advocacy campaign called “No Girls’ Examinations!” to prod officials to act. “We will fight until this issue is not repeated ever again,” says Myagmarsuren Gansukh, the 19-year-old leader of Young Voices Group.
Female Students Revolt Against ‘Virginity Tests’ Khorloo Khukhnokhoi, GPJ, has reported on virginity testing in Mongolia since June 2021. Read her first article on the practice.
Female Students Revolt Against ‘Virginity Tests’
Khorloo Khukhnokhoi, GPJ, has reported on virginity testing in Mongolia since June 2021. Read her first article on the practice.Click to read
In February, a school in the northern province of Khuvsgul oversaw its own version of a virginity test. The principal, Erdenetuya G., who declined to give her full name for fear of retribution, says administrators were aware of the government restrictions. “But we implemented a program, ‘Let’s Love Our Girls,’ at our school, and conducted girls’ examinations after providing girls with counseling and training.” Because the exams were part of an ongoing program, she says, administrators didn’t believe they needed to tell students and parents in advance.
Gerelee, 16, is a student at the school. (Her full name and the school’s name are being withheld to protect her identity and prevent harassment. As with Orkhon province, there are just a few dozen schools.) She says she didn’t want to be examined, but administrators told her that the “health event” was mandatory. One by one, she says, girls were forced to pee into a bucket in a school bathroom, apparently to check if they were pregnant. (The principal confirms that pregnancy testing occurred but disputes that the girls used a bucket.)
Gerelee says the bathroom was dirty and slick with urine. “Although I felt nauseated, I held my breath, peed very quickly and left,” she says. “It made me feel disgusted.” She heard nothing afterward from school officials, confirming what she already knew: She wasn’t pregnant.
Khorloo Khukhnokhoi is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Mongolia.
Otgonbaatar Tsedendemberel, GPJ, translated this article from Mongolian.