October 9, 2011


Times of India

State manual is unscientific and biased: NGO

MUMBAI: The Mumbai-based health NGO Cehat joined the case for a streamlined medico-legal response to sexual assault. It has since sought the World Health Organization's help in drawing up the guidelines. The WHO's response to the Maharashtra pro forma was sent to the committee appointed by the HC early this year, but little has been incorporated.

"There is little emphasis on physical and psychological treatment of the victim,'' said Cehat's Sangeeta Rege, adding that the focus is still on rape and not on sexual assault. There is no mention of putting the victim on preventive treatment for HIV or pregnancy. The organization has sent a letter of protest to the directorate of health's Dr Archana Patil. "The manual just doesn't incorporate the internationally accepted definition of "sexual violence" and therefore continues to be unscientific and biased against women,'' said the letter. A long-standing demand to include a standardized checklist for doctors has also been ignored.

The activists feel that observations about a woman's nutritional status or physical constitution could lead to bias: for instance, the assumption that a well-built woman can resist sexual assault. Secondly, doctors don't need to ascertain the size of the accused's penis, his ability to assault or the presence of hymen in the victim to underline rape. "Hymen can tear due to a physical activity like cycling,'' said Rege. Lastly, some evidence may be lost because victims may delay complaining to the police or doctors. "So, stressing on the presence of injuries is not right,'' she added.

Dr Walter Vaz, who heads KEM Hospital's forensic department and is an advisor to Cehat in this case, said that certain points had to be downplayed and others to be highlighted in the pro forma. "The hymen is an overrated piece of tissue. We need to downplay it as well as potency of the accused. Gentle reminders about questions doctors need to ask patients may help,'' he said.

Lawyer-activist Flavia Agnes, who was present for the committee's meeting on August 6, concurred. "We need to stress on treatment for patients, especially those who don't want to lodge a complaint. Public hospital doctors may ask such a rape victim to go and not even treat her.''

Incidentally, the WHO observations mentioned the need for "probes'' or questions that doctors need to ask. "The victim needs to be asked if there was oral or anal sex. The doctors too are part of our society and many feel squeamish about asking such questions. Hence, we need a list of probes,'' said Rege. However, the committee has in its August 6 consultations turned down this suggestion saying that it would be a leading question. Police surgeon Dr S M Patil, who is a member of the state government committee, said that the committee comprised gynaecologists, forensic experts and resident doctors who do the actual examination of victims. "It wasn't the decision of one person. An entire committee has thought and worked it out. Moreover, it is not necessary that all that health activists say is right.'' The next hearing is on October 12.


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