Survivor Friendly Court Rooms, Chapter 4: She, the one wounded by touch

Let’s walk with her, hold her close

Series 4

Rape is a not a crime like that of thrashing and breaking a person’s limbs. Here, what is shattered is the identity of a woman. She is called a survivor but beyond that name, what awaits her are constraints of all kinds. Our system should be really strong to guide her and take her forward despite all those hurdles on the way. True, mistakes could happen, but they should be rectified through corrections and effective training methods.

The touch that hurts

An accidental touch. Even that irritates and upsets us. Because, our body is our private zone. And when a rape is committed, it is a violent encroachment of that personal space. The medical examination is yet another dissection that the body is subjected to. But this examination is mandatory and crucial because its report is one of the only two evidences that supports the survivor in court; the other one being circumstantial evidence.

She might have decided to file the complaint years after the incident, or after getting pregnant because of the sexual assault. Even in these situations she has to undergo the examination. As the survivor goes through these stages, all we can do is to hold her close, support her and boost her willpower to fight.

Tiding over an emotional turbulence, it takes her a long time to explain to the doctor exactly what happened. The examination would be done based on her statement, and its objective is to help the survivor in her ordeal. Still, prejudices haunt her here too. Women who are willing to undergo the examination, women who ask if the examination is over… they are likely to be classified as “women of loose morals” by some of our medical practitioners.

They heal her wounds

Forensic surgeon and author Dr Shirley Vasu often talks about the training program at the Sexual Assault Referral Centre in Manchester that she attended after receiving a WHO fellowship. She was quite impressed by the system adopted by the Centre to take care of sexual assault survivors. When a call comes in seeking help, a car driven by a woman is sent to pick up the survivor. Even the music played in the car is in a female voice. A woman counsellor would be waiting in front of the Centre when the car arrives. As the survivor gets out of the car, the counsellor goes over to her, hugs and consoles her before leading her to the reception area. She is given a private space to sit and cry her heart out. Once she regains her presence of mind, the counsellor would explain in detail the next course of action including medical examination and legal proceedings.

The survivor needs to be prepared to undergo the medical examination. After the violent attack, she must be worried that the examination would hurt her again. And she might be feeling embarrassed about exposing herself before a stranger. Some of these survivors would be in a confused state of mind, a few would ask for drugs to forget what happened, and a few others would be contemplating suicide. And the counsellor manages to convince each one of them to go for medical examination. (This counsellor also accompanies the survivor to court, sits with her, holds her hand and keeps reassuring her.)

Can we imagine such a scene here? We often treat a survivor as if she is a jail inmate awaiting the sentence for a crime she committed.

This happened a few years ago. A doctor was called to the hospital in the middle of the night to examine a survivor. Furious for losing sleep, the doctor made a comment; what a timing for a rape case! That remark made the Health Minister reach there personally to reprimand the doctor. Yes, that happened in Kerala.

A trial for doctors

Medical practitioners who support survivors and get involved in their fight are sometimes humiliated in courtrooms during the trail. Like in the case of a five-year-old in Kozhikode a few years ago. While questioning the doctor who had examined the child, the defending lawyer asked, “Did the child tell you she was raped?”

“She said he hurt her” was the doctor’s reply.

“She must have meant a pinch or a slap, isn’t it possible?”

And the doctor had no choice but to retort furiously. “That child is too young to mention the word, rape. When a bleeding child is brought to me at 1 in the night, I know that she was not pinched by someone. If I lack that common sense, it means I don’t deserve this job in a government hospital.” Think of that situation where a doctor has to defend himself in the court. Some cases drag on for years that even doctors retired from service have to appear in court to testify.

Sakhi needs to grow to be an ideal companion

The Central government launched Sakhi one-stop centres as an umbrella scheme to give the survivor access to a range of services including medical, legal, psychological and counselling support as well as accommodation facilities under one roof. These centres are functioning effectively in many parts of the state, but they are yet to grow high and fulfil their true purpose.

Privacy should be ensured

Dr K. Sreekala
(Former Principal, Medical College, Alappuzha
Former Head of the Department of Forensic, Medical College, Thiruvananthapuram)

Even if the complaint is made a long time after the incident, it cannot be taken lightly. A complaint is a complaint. We should ensure a detailed report is given after a proper medical examination. I do not agree with the practice of repeating the examination when the survivor mentions the incident that happened two months ago. The second examination would reveal only what the doctor has already discovered. If the doctor detects anything suspicious about the findings, those factors alone should be probed again.

The survivor deserves a little more kindness and empathy from our side. There should be an excellent team consisting of a gynecologist, forensic expert and a psychologist to help her through this phase. There should be designated rooms to ensure her privacy. All hospitals might not be equipped in this way but Taluk hospitals and District Hospitals could definitely provide such facilities.

Read the other parts of the series here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three

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