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Dhaka: Medical examinations traumatic for rape survivors

Feb 16, 2010

Lack of women doctors for medical examination is proving to be a major impediment to justice delivery in rape cases in Bangladesh. Many of the survivors baulk at the insensitivity of the examination which prevents legal action against the attackers.

Dhaka: Every day on her way back from school, Payel Islam (name changed), a class VIII student of Srimongol in Sylhet, was sexually harassed by a group of young ruffians. Worried that her parents would hesitate to send her to school if they got to know about this, Payel kept quiet.

Then one day the verbal abuse turned into rape. Payel was assaulted in a desolate spot near a tea garden. She was found lying in a pool of blood by some tea garden workers who rushed her to a local hospital.

For any legal action to be taken, Payel's parents would need to produce the medical certificate issued to rape survivors on submitting to a full-body medical examination conducted by a government doctor. On learning that the examination required the victim to be fully undressed and that there were no female doctors to conduct it, Payel's mother refused permission.

"My daughter has already suffered. I didn't want a repeat of the rape by allowing male doctors to examine her whole body," said the distressed mother. Consequently, Payel did not go to court and the rapist was let off.

Unfortunately, Payel's is not a solitary case. There are many instances where rape-related crimes in Bangladesh do not reach the courts for want of female doctors, as victims do not want to be examined by male doctors. This has resulted in a major miscarriage of justice in a society where rape as a crime goes largely unreported because the rape survivor invariably ends up facing great ostracism - a classic case of a victim being treated as the offender. There have been cases of rape survivors burdened so much by a sense of shame that they are driven to suicide.

According to a monitoring report prepared by Bangladesh Mohila Parishad during the period of 1997-2001, some 1,656 women were raped, 614 gang-raped, 53 raped after promise of marriage and 159 murdered after rape. In 2006, around 549 rape incidents were reported of which 249 were cases of gang-rape, with some 170 victims being killed after being raped. In many of these cases the raped women came from impoverished backgrounds with low levels of literacy.

Commenting on the statistics, Salma Ali, Executive Director, National Women Lawyers' Association, believes that "the actual figure of rape incidents is much higher than what we read in newspapers."

Bangladesh's Women and Children Repression Prevention Act, 2000, ensures stringent punishment that can even mean death for rape-related crimes. Although women leaders, human rights activists, lawyers and civil society members have no problem with the law, they argue that the government must urgently respond to the shortage of female doctors in the forensic departments of public hospitals. The fact that medical examinations are conducted by male doctors - although always in the presence of a female employee - is a major inhibiting factor.

Women who have undergone such examinations have revealed how insensitive the process is and how it has often dissuaded them from seeking justice. Says Sanjeeda Akhter, who teaches at the Women and Gender Studies department, Dhaka University, "Many women have told us that medical examinations by male doctors are tantamount to a second rape. ... during (the) medical examination, they feel they are being raped psychologically."

According to the information provided by the Forensic Department of Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH), on an average five rape victims come to the hospital every day for medical examinations. Prior to the examination, the raped woman or her guardian is required to sign on a blank paper giving consent to all types of medical examinations.

Invariably, on learning that the examination is to be conducted by a male doctor, the victim and her guardian prefer to return home and lose their right to bring the culprit to book. Reshma (name changed), who lives in Dhaka's Amin Bazaar, is one such case. Says the young woman, "I was raped once... Now, I didn't want to expose my naked body to male doctors."

Reshma was very keen to ensure that her attacker was punished, but the trauma of undergoing a medical examination forced her to change her mind.

Farida Yasmin, Deputy Director, Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), believes that it is time that the state ensured that "these examinations are conducted in the strictest confidentially by female doctors."

Doctors at the forensic department of DMCH are quick to point out that these examinations are conducted in a manner that is sensitive to the affected woman, and always in the presence of a female staffer. But despite these protestations, there can be no denying that the lack of women doctors is proving to be a major impediment to justice delivery in such cases. Women leaders, human rights activists and the civil society organisations are now increasingly demanding the appointment of an adequate number of female doctors in forensic departments.

The problem is an old one. Writer Selina Hossain recalls that in 2000 a six-year-old girl was raped by a police constable at the Panchagarh Police Lines. In that case, too, the medical examinations could not be carried out as the child felt intimidated in the presence of a man. Hossain believes that the government needs to address the issue urgently.

Dr Zinat D. Laila, who works at DMCH's Forensic Department at the DMCH, urges female doctors to join the department on humanitarian grounds. "If there are adequate female doctors, no tortured woman will go back without being examined," she says.

Her words underline a grim reality. At present there are only five female doctors in forensic departments across the country, three of whom are at DMCH, while the government hospitals of Mymensingh and Comilla have one each.

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