Untrained Medical Examiners Add To The Ordeal Of Sexually Abused Children
Karthika Gopalakrishnan | TNN
Chennai: A four-year-old girl from Kallakurichi in Villupuram district was in the spotlight last week, with the Madras high court looking into claims of conflicting medical reports on whether she was sexually assaulted by two women teachers at her school.
After the incident, she was first taken to a government hospital for examination, then to a private hospital followed by a third examination by another team of doctors. While it is hoped the law will take its course with regard to the accused, what becomes of the child, who was subjected to unnecessary inquiry and trauma, only because the first doctor may have got it wrong?
This incident trains focus on the role of medical officers in handling victims of sexual abuse. According to lawyers and judicial officers, the history of the survivor, with an account of how the assault occurred — in the individual’s words — should be a part of the evidence sent by medical officers to the court.
“Recently, we dealt with the case of a rape attempt on a 12-year-old girl. The Supreme Court has held that vaginal penetration, even to a small degree, is enough to prove a charge of rape. While the accused should have got a t e n - ye a r sentence, he got off with six years because the medical officer’s report said there was no evidence to show that sexual assault had been committed. It did not go into the victim’s history,” a judicial officer observes.
Lawyer and activist Geeta Ramaseshan feels there should be much greater sensitivity to incidents of sexual violence. “There is huge psychological trauma that the victim has to cope with. The Supreme Court has held that testimony of the victim alone is enough to convict a person of rape, if it is found true. While medical evidence is very important, I think it is complementary to the victim’s personal evidence,” she says. Fundamentals of evidence-collection such as taking a vaginal swab or smear before cleaning up are ignored while archaic practices such as the ‘finger test’ continue to be in vogue, says Nancy Thomas of Tulir, Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse. This ‘test’ refers to a practice where the doctor notes the presence or absence of the hymen and the laxity of the vagina to determine how “habituated the woman is to sexual intercourse”.
Medico-legal expert Dr Raghavan says that no training programmes have been conducted for medical officers in the recent past. “There are sexual assault forensic evidence (SAFE) kits to ensure that evidence is collected and recorded methodically. They need to be made available at the district and taluk-level hospitals as well as primary health centres.” “We are open to conducting training programmes for medical officers but we need an agency to come forward with a proposal. Once we get a request, we can write to the government for funds,” a senior official from the health department said.
For survivors of sexual violence, the decision to undergo a medical examination is an act of courage in itself. It is hoped that with a doctor in place, who is responsive to a survivor’s immediate need for medical and psychological care, the first step in the process of putting the trauma behind them will become easier. TIMES VIEW India has been still struggling to put together a legislation to deal exclusively with child sexual abuse. In the absence of such a law, the investigation and the prosecution sometimes forget that the survivor is a child whose psyche and sensibilities are different from those of an adult. As a result, for the child the process of evidence gathering and trial become experiences in reliving the trauma of the assault. Besides dealing with sexual offences against children through a special law and special courts, we should have investigation teams trained specifically to deal with such
cases. Children, as they say, are not