Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards

How DDB Romania Sets Out to Tackle Virginity Testing

Advertising Agency
Bucharest, Romania
Despite being an offence against human rights, every year approximately 1,000 virginity tests are carried out on young girls in Romania, so DDB did their best to change that. The team behind the #UnExaminable campaign spoke to LBB’s Zoe Antonov to tell her how they plan to do that

DDB Romania has partnered with the Network to Prevent and Tackle Violence against Women (VIF) to raise awareness about virginity testing – an abusive and traumatising practice still performed on young girls in Romania to determine the ‘chastity’ of teenage girls. Although deemed by the WHO as a violation on human rights, and as less than 10% effective in determining if an individual has had sexual intercourse, the forensic testing is still done in Romania under the name of the “two-finger examination.” In 2019, virginity tests accounted for 2% of all examinations carried out by facilities subordinated to the Mina Minovici Forensic Institute (INML), meaning that around 1,000 virginity tests were carried out that year, and the years following, in various facilities all across the country, either performed in relation to criminal investigation, ot upon parental request – particularly by fathers.

Created as a pro-bono social campaign by DDB Romania in partnership with VIF, the #UnExaminable campaign aims to bring awareness to the issue in and beyond Romania, about the abhorrent practice that still haunts young women in the country. By drawing a parallel between the virginity testing and the national baccalaureate exams, which commenced on June 6th and aim to test high schoolers’ verbal communication abilities, the campaign film pushes for audiences to understand that for many young women in Romania high school exams aren’t the only ones they worry about. The campaign also aims to remove the tests from Romanian legislation, and push authorities to declare virginity testing as fully illegal, and is already seeing some “encouraging results” – less than a week from the beginning of the campaign, The National Institute of Forensic Medicine reportedly banned virginity testing within all its units. Although this can be seen as some progress, it doesn’t “oblige any other health care providers to do the same, so the work is not over yet,” tells DDB’s senior copywriter Alexandru Iliescu. 

Beyond this, the pressure on authorities continues with full force, especially with the support of the public and media, which has helped the petition on the issue already reach 43,000 signatures. 

LBB’s Zoe Antonov spoke to senior copywriter Alexandru Iliescu and creative director Roxana Nita, as well as director of the campaign Iulia Rugina, to find out more about how well known the practice is, how the campaign has pressured lawmakers and what the next steps will be.

LBB> Tell me more about the brief for this project and the initial conversations around it.

Roxana> We saw a post one day about how the V.I.F. Network (The Network for Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women) raised an alarm about virginity tests still being performed in Romania in medical-forensic units. We were really shocked and intrigued to learn about it and asked for more details from the network. After our initial discussion, we decided together that a public awareness campaign aiming at eliminating the tests would help speed up the process of them getting on the agenda of law makers. All the extended team at DDB jumped on board immediately and we managed to bring along a lot of talented people to fight with us for this cause.

So as high-schoolers across Romania prepared to begin the baccalaureate exam, a national evaluation that began on MondayJune 6th, we thought of raising awareness on the existence of another abusive exam that some teenagers still have to pass nowadays: the virginity exam, also called the “two-finger” test. So we launched #UnExaminable, a campaign focused on an emotional video, which draws a parallel between the baccalaureate exam and virginity exams, in order to outlaw them.

Alexandru> We knew we were about to tackle a sensitive issue, so we needed to do our homework really well. We worked closely with our partners from V.I.F. to complete our research on the matter and make a realistic plan. From there forward, the campaign was a get-together of amazing people who answered our call and did their best for the cause. The director, the actors, the production team, and all the other people involved in this project did an extraordinary job. We want to thank them once again for the pro bono effort they put into this. 

LBB> Explain more about virginity testing in Romania, for those that might be unaware of the issue.

Alexandru> Well, the practice aims to determine whether a girl or woman has had sexual intercourse or not by examining the hymen. The test is unofficially called the “two-fingers” test. However, as virginity cannot be medically determined, this so-called test is totally useless and causes physical and psychological harm to those forced to have it. Although the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that "virginity testing is a violation of a girl or woman's human rights," the practice still exists in Romania today. 

LBB> Is there much talk around the subject in Romania and if yes, where do you see it mostly happening? 

Roxana> Although there are many NGOs such as those from the VIF Network that try to shine some light on women rights issues, our country is still a patriarchal one, where old mentalities get passed along generations. In more traditional and conservative families, there is still this perception of how women must be “pure” and “immaculate” before marriage. There’s a lot of stigma attached to losing your virginity and even fewer talks about sexuality and safe sex. No one talks about these topics, they are usually avoided at home and not even discussed in schools. A lot of women growing up in the ‘90s told us that virginity testing is something that their parents would threaten them with to control their sexuality.
The number of virginity tests done annually could be considered low by some people (around 1,000 tests), but what’s appalling is that they still exist and are a gross violation of women’s rights. So even if one woman suffers from this, the issue must be addressed.

Iulia> There is now, thanks to the campaign ☺ But I believe discussions around it have taken place before, maybe not in my particular environment. I myself was shocked to learn this kind of examination will still take place in 2022 in Romania. But the victims of this sort of tests are teenage girls, so I am assuming that’s where the subject is mostly present in every day discussions. One might assume it’s going on in uneducated, rural environments, but I think what’s worse is that it happens amongst the educated population, probably middle-class parents who have the financial means to subject their daughters to this kind of treatment, traditionalist communities with extremist behaviour. 

LBB> Do you believe creative media has more to do with this issue, and if so, what do you expect to see?

Alexandru> Regardless of our campaign's results, creative media in Romania should get more involved in this issue. That's because, beyond stopping virginity testing, it's essential to change the mentality of the people, and that's way harder to do. We need to help people understand that virginity is a social construct, so our society can take concrete steps towards addressing other problems that affect Romanian women, such as gender discrimination, social abuse, or sexual violence.

LBB> Tell us more about the work of Network to Prevent and Tackle Violence against Women (VIF) and what was it like collaborating with them.

Roxana> I previously worked with ANAIS Association, an NGO that’s part of the network, for almost three years at my previous agency, so I already had a great work relationship with them. But the same dynamic quickly established between us and the rest of the NGOs involved in the project. Although there are over 25 NGOs involved, they were professional, helpful, and quick to decide on things by delegating responsibility to three key people: Andrada Cibiliu from FILIA Centre, Mihaela Mangu from ANAIS Association and Tudorina Mihai from FRONT Association. We had a tight partnership with them and I’m sure we’ll work together again in the future. 

LBB> What kind of impact do you expect the campaign to have, and what are its main goals? How do you plan to achieve them?

Alexandru> The main goal of our campaign is to convince authorities to declare virginity testing illegal, and to our surprise, we're already starting to see some encouraging results. Less than one week from the start of the campaign, The National Institute of Forensic Medicine banned virginity testing within its units. However, this decision does not oblige other health care providers to do the same, so our work is not over yet. We continue to do our best to pressure authorities, and the public and media showed us great support. We managed to collect over 43.000 signatures for our cause, and the subject of virginity testing was covered in articles and news journals all over the country. 

LBB> Why did you get involved in the campaign pro bono, what were your motivations?

Iulia> I get triggered easily when I hear about any form of violence against women. But I remember my initial reaction when Roxana told me all the details about the campaign was to start crying. It was a powerful proposal and a powerful matter to put on the table, so there was not a second of doubt in my mind. I didn’t take it as a payless job, but as an opportunity to help. As the song puts it, some things you do for money, some things you do for love ☺ Love for the people and love for my job. I have always jumped into things I truly believed in and I truly believed in the necessity of this campaign.  

LBB> What has the reaction of the audiences been so far? What are the moods on the subject in general?

Alexandru> This kind of subject is widely regarded as taboo in Romania, so most of the public was not aware of the virginity testing issue. Thus, when our campaign started, people were surprised and outraged to find out that this practice is still a reality in Romania. The online conversation about the "two-finger test" ignited, and people reacted promptly by condemning the so-called medical exam and signing our #UnExaminable petition in high numbers. 

LBB> How was it like to direct such an emotional and powerful piece of film?

Iulia> It was a wonderful experience, from start to finish. Roxana and the whole agency behind it were extremely involved, supportive and open. I got the chance to work with friends – the DoP, Boroka Biro, the actress, Voica Oltean and the composer, Mihai Dobre, are very dear friends and they jumped into the project with no hesitation. The production company, which was the first-time collaboration for me, was incredibly professional.

I’m not a fan of drawing this kind of gender lines, but this time I think it helped that we were mostly women involved in the creative side. Simply because I think we all put ourselves in the shoes of our character and that’s what’s really triggering so it was easier to tell the story, each on our side, just because we knew exactly what this examination would feel like and we could really feel the abuse.

LBB> Has this campaign made the news and has mainstream media helped with spreading the message?

Roxana> In the first day alone, on June 6th, all major media outlets picked up the story and featured articles on the subject. #UnExaminable was featured on all important Romanian TV channels: Prima TV, PRO TV, EuroNews, B1 TV, Antena 3, Antena 1 and DIGI TV. The petition gathered over 20,000 signatures in the first two days alone and after one week increased to 35,000 with almost no paid promo. So far, over 25 Romanian influencers joined the cause and shared our petition. The campaign is still running and we aim to kickstart an official legal proposal to outlaw them. 

The campaign also got picked up in pop-culture contexts such as generating a whole debate on Reddit, getting a satirical nod in Times New Roman (Romania’s equivalent of The Onion) and an illustrator even drew an unofficial poster for the movie.

LBB> Any final thoughts?

Alexandru> It's great to see that people are still willing to fight for what's right, and the #UnExaminable campaign is yet another proof of that. Still, we do understand that from here on, the only thing we can do is to increase our effort if we want to see a positive change in our society.

Iulia> It’s always a privilege to be working on projects that mean something, that bring on that tiniest piece of change in the society or that help stop some form of abuse. I am happy and honoured to have been part of this.   

Roxana> Whenever I work on social campaigns, I’m always in awe when we manage to gather a team of super talented people that are willing to get involved pro bono, just because they genuinely support the cause. I’m really grateful to my colleagues at DDB for working so hard these past weeks (Alexandru, Ana, Andreea, Roxana M, Roxana T). We managed to bring on board some notorious names from within the film industry in Romania. 

The short film was directed by Iulia Rugina, a multi-awarded director who most recently co-directed the first Romanian series on HBO. The main role was played by newly risen young actress Voica Oltean, the music was composed by Mihai Dobre, a veteran in Romanian music and the photographer of the project was Adi Bulboaca, another important name in the art industry. We’re also grateful to our partner-agencies: Abis Studio, Porter Novelli, Media Investment.