Sexual Assault and Women

When did we last apologise to a victim of sexual offence, for not being able to protect her from being acted upon violently, perhaps in a bus, roadside or any other public space? When did we make a legal and/or psychiatric counselor available to her from the time of reporting the crime? Maybe we should answer easy questions first. When did we last sensitise the police, public and doctor to have a sensitive attitude? When did we last confirm that the reporting of crime and its treatment is not equally or more painful than the crime? When did a leader last ensure that a heinous intolerable crime like a sexual assault will not be tolerated and justice will be served? 

Being in Forensic Medicine for about 28 years now, having witnessed Medical examination of victim of sexual assault before that, during undergraduate days in Forensic Medicine, it has been a years of watching innumerable cases minor and major, taking history of sexual assault, examination, documentation and going to court for evidence as an expert. In the court, watching the process where victim would sit and watch the proceedings with exhaustion or exasperation or confusion or a distant disconnected look. The laws have been tortuous, processes relentless and justice rare. A woman when she wanted to report, went to police station to report which took some hours, then she was brought to a doctor which again took hours depending on how busy the doctor was. The dishevelled mind with whatever the state of body sat on floors or often stood for long, with facility of toilet or drinking water may or may not be available. How often the victim has to repeat her story and take care that she answers what is asked and knows what is important to convey, was shocking. Often her age would also be estimated which involved a drill of 7 to 8 X-ray exposures after confirming that she is not likely to be pregnant, when x-ray of abdomen would be reduced as a technical consideration. I was studying and later working at this tertiary care Institute where Forensic Medicine persons did examination and age estimation both. We also kept photographic evidence and did vaginal smear examination. Having all this done under one roof with precision by an expert was rare in those days (and still is in Madhya Pradesh) and so we got lot of referred cases too. Interesting that in 80s and 90s, the two-finger test was done routinely, photography of injuries and of any findings the expert thought important could be preserved. Consent was a statement the victim signed to or put a thumb impression on. This included for everything, examination and evidence preservation, as there was no distinction between consents for different aspects of examination or evidence collection. Past sexual history was indulged in. If her clothing had any evidence, the clothing was to be sealed by the expert. The extra clothing then required by the victim was to be arranged by the police and the expert would mention it loud and clear. The victim waited until the report of age estimation case and her physical examination was prepared and given to the police officer by the expert. A victim did not get a copy of the report in those days. 

Only recently we have begun to think about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in the victim of sexual assault and then again in only a few places with seriousness. PTSD has long term consequences and it is the same entity mentioned with reference to war veterans. 

Over a period of time we did change the definition of rape, as with the previous definition, a person could commit sexual assault and yet skirt the definition of rape and not be punished under its purview. The accused several years ago proposed or accepted marriage to victim which would often be taken as apology or punishment or both. It felt ridiculous to some of us but was not taken to be offensive by law. That this has changed has been a step in the right direction.

The two-finger test for the victim has been banned. This test is horrible, filthy and dehumanising. It was done for years as a mandatory test. The termination of pregnancy must be allowed at any duration of pregnancy. It still has a time limit! It is also discouraged to ask or record sexual history of the victim now which is a welcome step.

One should read book by Mrinal Satish ‘Discretion, Discrimination and the rule of Law: reforming rape sentencing in India’ to understand how we made mess of innumerable cases of sexual assault. So many women are sexual assaulted in our country, so many disproportionately more in Madhya Pradesh and yet we keep our eyes and minds so closed to it! 

The Committees to deal with Sexual Harassment at workplace have emerged. Wherever they work well, so many complaints are followed by quick action. Where the Committees or in-charge of Organisations and Institutions make a reputation of not responding well or not implementing the desired penalties the numbers remain restricted. This can provide a hint that prompt hearing and prompt action are needed. There is so much sexual harassment in campuses which we have yet to unearth.

Sexual assault permanently reduces the potential to feel pleasure by the victim unless we address the issue, confront the assailant and ensure appropriate counselling to the victim. Marital rape that we are still not willing to consider as rape puts lot of women to not just a disadvantage but discrimination, exploitation and torture.

In India we have practice of dowry which prompted us to have section 304 B on Dowry deaths. Number of women who are burnt in this country within 7 years of marriage is also astounding. There is an accomplished subdued group of women which is made to feel under confident, restricted, less ambitious, more homeward bound, of stronger nurturing capacity so as to raise children. They are not supposed to carry burden of being cleaner, more good-looking, better dressed, tradition respecting or just smiley agreeing people. She is not good at dish washing or multi tasking. She is not a super woman. We just marketed that concept well. Time to drop it. Let us begin to give women space oftener on driver’s seat, head of the dining table, chairperson in more boards and Committees, as more combat pilots and participation in month long Tour de France bicycle race. It is an unequal world. Start by admitting and resolving to be firm in dealing with gender discrepancies wherever you see them. Address it or let her. She might do it better.

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