Brazil’s São Paulo state is facing a mounting wave of criticism and outrage after local media revealed the state requires female candidates for teaching jobs to undergo gynecological exams or provide “proof of virginity” from a doctor.
Women applying to work as teachers in Brazil’s most populous state are asked to get a pap smear to prove that they do not have certain kinds of cancer. If they do not wish to undergo the exam, women are also allowed to present a statement from their doctor saying that they have not been sexually active — even though some of these cancers can develop without any sexual activity.
The practice, which has been in place since at least 2012, came to light last week, when Brazilian news outlet Último Segundo interviewed a 27-year-old woman who said she felt embarrassed asking her doctor for the “virginity note” to avoid having to get the other tests.
The state’s health standard for public workers requires several different medical tests, including mammograms for women and prostate exams for men over the age of 40. Until recently, the state also required women to undergo a colposcopy, a visual exam used to detect some kinds of diseases.
São Paulo’s education department says the tests are necessary to show that teaching candidates are in good health and are unlikely to need extended or frequent absences because of health issues. The state’s public management department said that these tests fall under the legal standards of the national Health Ministry’s recommendations for public servants, and said in a statement that other state and national agencies have similar requirements.
“The health inspections are intended to ensure, beyond technical ability, the physical and mental ability of candidates to keep their jobs for an average of 25 years,” the emailed statement said.
However, many rights groups in Brazil have decried the exams as invasive and a violation of privacy. The São Paulo bar association has called the requirements unconstitutional, while Brazil’s national Secretariat for Women’s Rights issued a statement opposing the practice.
“The woman has the right to choose whether to take an exam that will not affect her professional life,” said the statement. Such policies violate constitutional protections of human dignity and the principle of equality and right to private life, it said.
Maria Izabel Noronha, president of São Paulo teachers’ union APEOESP, called the requirement a violation of women’s rights.
“A virginity test? Please! We’re in the 21st century,” she said.
This isn’t the first time Brazil has appeared in the news for forcing female public employees to submit to invasive, embarrassing and discriminatory medical procedures. Last year, the government faced a public uproar when it was revealed that female candidates for police jobs in the northeast state of Bahia were required to take similar tests or provide evidence that their hymens were intact, thus “proving” virginity. After a national outcry, the government got rid of the requirement.
And Brazil is hardly the only country where women are forced to provide extensive, private medical information to employers or state entities. Many employers across the world continue to discriminate against female workers based on the mistaken belief that they are a poor investment and more likely to take time off. Factory workers in China, flower workers in Colombia and sweatshop employees in Honduras are just a few of the groups of women that face interrogations from employers about their families and future plans, and are forced to take pregnancy tests. In the United States, a California jail faces a lawsuit from female inmates who say they were forced to take pregnancy tests against their will.
Still, the Brazil case is one of the few examples of the government actually supporting — and even requiring — these practices, which are illegal or at the very least discouraged in many other countries. Only time will tell if the public reaction will again be enough to get the Brazilian government to join this century and outlaw these medieval practices.