Ground Report | New Delhi: What is Virgin cleansing; The virgin cleansing myth (also referred to as the virgin cure myth, virgin rape myth, or simply virgin myth) is the belief that having sex with a virgin girl cures a man of HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases. The practice came to light in South Africa and Zimbabwe in the 1990s at the height of the HIV epidemic and spread to areas of India and Southeast Asia.
What is Virgin cleansing?
Anthropologist Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala says the myth is a potential factor in infant rape by HIV-positive men in South Africa. In addition to young girls, who are presumed to be virgins because of their age, people who are “blind, deaf, physically impaired, intellectually disabled, or who have mental-health disabilities” are sometimes raped under the erroneous presumption that individuals with disabilities are sexually inactive and therefore virgins.
According to a report by Reuters in 2019, “More than 40 million people were trapped as slaves last year in forced labor and forced marriages, most of them women and girls… Almost three out of every four slaves were women and girls and one in four was a child… In the past five years, 89 million people suffered in some form of modern slavery, lasting from days to years, the report estimated.”
The majority of those slaves are sexually exploited and are involved with pgraphy. Vulnerable people are tricked or forced into prostitution and pgraphy, and many of them are children. Sexually exploited slaves can be found worldwide especially in 3rd world countries, and even in the United States.
This practice is spreading like wildfire all over Asian countries like Thailand and India. In Kolkata’s main red-light district, Sonagachi, sex workers and the NGOs working with them noticed a worrying trend. An increasing number of male customers are asking for virgin girls.
Behind the rise, they say, is a mix of the country’s massive rural-to-urban migration and the prevailing belief among some men that if they have sexual intercourse with a female virgin, they will be cured of HIV or gain some protection against it. And it is putting many girls and young women at risk of contracting the virus – in a country that already has the third largest HIV epidemic in the world.
There has been a sharp rise in the number of men in Kolkata asking for girls under the age of 18, who are assumed to be virgins. Some of the girls staying in shelters run by Apne Aap are as young as 8 or 9. “The numbers are going up and the age is coming down,” says Ruchira Gupta, founder of the anti-trafficking NGO.
It was thought that the practice, which grew out of social and economic desperation, mystical beliefs, and a lack of education, had died out in India. But various sources say that not only is it still prevalent, but it’s also becoming more common as millions of economic migrants move into Kolkata from the surrounding countryside and neighboring Bangladesh.
Many of the city’s residents live in grinding poverty, making them prime targets of India’s huge sex trafficking industry. According to official statistics, 400 women and children went missing every day in India in 2015 and campaigners estimate there are 3–9 million victims of sex trafficking nationwide.
In India and Nepal, young girls are often seen as demi goddesses. Urmi Basu, the founder of New Light, an NGO working with HIV-positive people in some of Kolkata’s poorest districts, says some HIV-positive men are sleeping with virgins in the hope they’ll receive a blessing from a goddess and be cured of their disease.
HIV in India
“It has a devastating impact on the lives of the girls who are in the red-light district,” Urmi says. Dipesh Tank, project director at the Rescue Foundation, a group that rescues girls from sex slavery across India, agrees that the best way to stop the practice of virgin cleansing is to challenge the myth that feeds it. “The government and the authorities must step in immediately. They need to identify the areas and regions where [the practice] is prevalent and run massive public awareness programs,” he says.
“We can bring in the best doctors, the best counselors and healthcare practitioners, but what do we do with people’s attitude [toward the disease]?” she says. “No matter what the government or the administration does, the extent of fear and stigma surrounding this condition is so deep. It’s sometimes seen as modern-day leprosy.”
There are approximately 2.1 million people infected with HIV in India. While progress has been made in combating the disease, with the number of new HIV infections almost halved over the past decade, UNAIDS reports that in 2016 only around 53 percent of infected adults had access to antiretroviral treatment.