When 151 women gathered in Madhya Pradesh state in central India last month, they were preparing for a celebration; all were to be married in a state-run mass wedding in the city of Shahdol. But they weren’t expecting what came next: being shepherded into a line, and then subjected to an official “virginity test.”
The mass wedding was part of a new state-wide scheme to provide free marriages to the poor. Traditionally, women in India’s tribal regions have difficulty finding spouses, since they can’t afford costly weddings and lavish dowries. The new program not only lets them tie the knot for free, it provides them with gifts worth about 6,500 rupees ($153).
But a “virginity test” was never part of the deal. And according to reports, the women weren’t told about the test until they arrived. “At first I refused to go through the test,” said one tribal girl who was among the Shahdol brides. “But an officer told me I would not be allowed inside the marriage hall unless the gynecologist declared me eligible.”
Officials deny that validating virginity was the goal, instead claiming they were performing a simple pregnancy test to weed out already married women who were only there for the cash payout. “The test was a precautionary measure,” said a Shahdol district commissioner. “Last year one of the brides delivered a baby even as the marriage ceremony was on.” The test found 14 women to be pregnant, and they were prevented from taking part in the ceremony.
News of the tests has activists, such as Girija Vyas, head of the Indian National Commission for Women, reeling. “Such a shameful act, where girls had to reportedly undergo tests to prove their chastity to avail the government’s financial aid, were sinful,” she said, “and could not be tolerated in a sane society.”