(CNN)Virginity tests on sexual assault survivors have been outlawed in Pakistan's most-populous province, in a landmark ruling that's the first of its kind in the country.
Pakistan's most populous province bans virginity tests for rape survivors in landmark ruling
The Lahore High Court in Punjab province on Monday declared the practice illegal, saying it has "no medical basis" and "offends the personal dignity of the female victim and therefore is against the right to life and right to dignity."
So-called virginity tests, which include inspecting the hymen or inserting two fingers into the vagina, are invasive examinations conducted under the belief that they can determine whether a female is a virgin. They are a long-standing tradition in many regions around the world -- including Pakistan -- to assess a girl or woman's "honor or virtue," according to the World Health Organization.
The tests are performed for various reasons, such as before marriage or even to asses employment eligibility. But in some regions, the exam is performed on rape victims to determine whether or not a sexual assault occurred.
The United Nations describes virginity tests as having no scientific or medical basis and considers them a human rights violation. Women and girls can be forced into the tests, which are "often times painful, humiliating and traumatic" and can suffer psychological, physical and social consequences, especially in cases of rape, according to WHO.
Despite calls from various UN agencies to end the practice, it continues and has been documented in at least 20 countries -- including the United States.
Two petitions filed in Lahore in March and June 2020 were brought by a group of women's rights activists, academics, journalists, advocates and a member of the National Assembly, seeking to ban such tests for rape survivors. They argued that the tests are unscientific, intrusive, demeaning and a source of retraumatization.
In her ruling, Justice Ayesha Malik sided with the petitioners, saying the tests had "no forensic value in cases of sexual violence" and were discriminatory against women. She also directed the government to devise guidelines and training programs to ensure examiners stop the practice.
"Virginity testing is highly invasive, having no scientific or medical requirement, yet carried out in the name of medical protocols in sexual violence cases. It is a humiliating practice, which is used to cast suspicion on the victim, as opposed to focusing on the accused and the incident of sexual violence," Malik said in court documents.
Sahar Bandial, an advocate of the Lahore High Court and one of the lawyers who filed the petition, said the verdict will have wider cultural implications.
"This is so important because so much emphasis has been placed in our culture as the hymen being signifier of the purity of a woman," Bandial said. She added that women who were subjected to the tests have been accused of being "habituated to sex" and conclusions made about their past sexual history.
"There is an inference that the woman is of easy virtue and likely to have consented to sexual activity," she said.
The ban applies to Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, which is home to more than 110 million people. However, campaigners say the ruling will set a precedent for courts across the country.
"My hope is that the system becomes more sensitive to the rape victims; the experience of having to go through a penetrative test again is retraumatizing for a rape victim. I hope this judgment makes the justice system a more responsive and safer place for women to come out and speak out against violence," Bandial said.
In November, the Punjab government banned the so-called "two-finger" test by medical examiners in rape cases, following the petitions' challenge in the courts. Monday's ruling enshrines that and goes further by including all virginity tests.
Following the verdict, Pakistan's Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari tweeted that the decision was a "landmark judgment indeed."
In a statement, the petitioners said it was a "welcome development and a much-needed step in the right direction of improving the investigative and judicial processes and making them fairer for victims of rape and sexual assault."