Lahore (Pakistan) (AFP)
Raped at 14, Shazia took the rare and courageous step of reporting the crime to Pakistani police, to face a traumatic “virginity test” – a long-standing practice that denies justice to victims.
The teenager was still in a daze after being assaulted by her father’s cousin when police forced her to see a doctor, who performed the invasive medical examination to determine if she had a sexual history.
“She told me to open my legs and put her fingers in,” Shazia, not her real name, told AFP in a written statement.
“It was very painful. I didn’t know why she was doing this. I wish my mother was with me.
In a country where rape is largely under-reported and survivors of sexual assault are viewed with suspicion, virginity tests are often ordered as part of police investigations.
The outcome can be critical in any criminal case, with an unmarried victim discredited if she is seen as sexually active.
This partly explains Pakistan’s abysmal rape conviction rate, according to activists and lawyers, with official data putting it at 0.3%.
Shazia’s “two finger test” requires a doctor to insert her fingers into the victim’s vagina and record whether they “entered easily” or not.
A woman is supposed to do the exams, but this directive is not always followed.
Other visual virginity tests – sometimes using glass rods – look for signs of scarred tears or scarring.
They can have a disastrous effect on survivors of sexual assault, who already face terrible social stigma in a country obsessed with respecting the “honor” of women.
“I wasn’t told how they were going to examine me. They just said I had to be seen by a doctor to help the police, ”Shazia said of her ordeal three years ago.
Shazia’s parents, who filed a complaint, then abandoned her due to family pressure.
– “Mouth of a spoiled girl” –
Similar virginity tests are used in at least 20 countries around the world, from Brazil to Zimbabwe, according to the World Health Organization.
He says the exams are violations of human rights and have absolutely no scientific merit.
But Pakistani health officials have long encouraged all girls and women who report rape allegations to submit to testing.
“I see this as another rape in itself,” Sidra Humayun, an activist who deals with sexual assault cases, told AFP.
“Most of the rape victims I worked with said they were traumatized.”
Court documents viewed by AFP paint a startling picture of how female rape victims can be humiliated and ridiculed if a doctor concludes they are having sex.
A man convicted of raping a 15-year-old teenager in a village outside the city of Faisalabad was released on appeal in 2014, after the judge looked at the results of the two-finger test and ruled that the adolescent was a “lady of easy virtue”.
“The uncorroborated statement of (the victim) cannot be relied on because it comes from the mouth of a spoiled girl,” said the judgment.
Invasive exams are sometimes conducted without the full understanding or even consent of rape victims, often by practitioners who lack sensitivity training, say case officers and lawyers.
A female doctor working at one of Lahore’s government hospitals told AFP that she viewed young rape victims with suspicion.
Without providing any evidence, she claimed families often fabricate rape allegations if they find out that an unmarried girl is having sex.
“But we can easily determine from the tests we do whether the girl has ever had sex or not. So we know which claim is false and which is not, ”she said on condition of anonymity.
Some historians say virginity testing dates back to colonial times and was used by the British to discredit local rape victims, with the practice widely adopted in India and Pakistan after independence.
“It emerged in colonial times as a result of the misconception or stereotypical belief that indigenous women tend to lie about these crimes,” says Sadaf Aziz, an activist against testing.
– Rise of anger –
Pakistan remains a deeply conservative nation, but there are signs of growing anger over the handling of cases of sexual abuse.
The recent gang rape of a mother in front of her children on a highway sparked protests across the country, fueled by comments from a police chief that she shouldn’t have been driving alone at night.
Following the outcry, the Pakistani president last month approved a new anti-rape law that bans two-finger testing but does not exclude visual virginity exams.
The law has not yet been ratified by parliament.
But activists this month won a major victory in the country’s most populous province, Punjab, where the Lahore High Court banned all virginity testing – the first such ruling in Pakistan.
Lawyers are hoping it could cause a domino effect across the country, with a similar case going to courts in neighboring Sindh province.
Sameer Khosa, a lawyer who campaigned for the ban in the Punjab, warned that the decision was just the start of a battle against entrenched patriarchal attitudes in the Pakistani justice system.
“This is something that has lasted for decades,” he told AFP.
“Civil servants will suddenly have to be retrained to understand that this (test) is no longer relevant. ”
– ‘The doctors did not ask me’ –
Across the Indian border, the test continues to be carried out despite a formal ban in 2013.
Komal, 14, not her real name, was forced to undergo a virginity test last year while her parents were away after being raped by a priest at a local temple in India.
“(The doctors) didn’t ask me for anything before doing it,” she told AFP by phone. “It’s a question of shame. It is not good to put fingers in a girl’s private parts. ”
Ashif Shaikh, who heads the Indian association against sexual violence Jan Sahas, told AFP that his organization alone identifies “hundreds of cases each year” where the two-finger test is carried out.
“It is not easy for victims to see their rapists walking freely while their own honor is in question,” said Abdul Ghaffar Khan Chughtai, a lawyer from the Pakistani city of Bahawalpur.
“My client decided not to pursue a case because she didn’t think she would get justice. ”
© 2021 AFP