'Raped twice': Virginity tests block justice for victims

‘Two-finger test’ and other visual virginity tests can have a harrowing effect on survivors of sexual assault


AFP January 13, 2021
PHOTO: AFP/FILE

Raped at 14, Shazia took the rare and courageous step of reporting the crime to police, only to face a traumatic "virginity test" – a long-standing practice that denies justice to victims.

Shazia, not her real name, was still in a daze after she was assaulted by her father's cousin when police forced her to see a doctor, who conducted the invasive medical exam intended to determine whether she had a history of having sex.

While sharing her ordeal about the two-finger test (TFT), an old practice of examining sexual assault survivors, the teenager told AFP in a written statement: "It was very painful. I didn't know why she was doing it. I wish my mother had been with me."

Rape cases are vastly underreported in the country and survivors of sexual assault are viewed with suspicion, virginity tests are often ordered as part of police investigations.

The result can be critical to any criminal case, with an unmarried victim discredited if she is deemed to be sexually active.

That goes some way towards explaining the country's abysmal rape conviction rate, activists and lawyers say, with official data putting it as low as 0.3%.

The ‘two-finger test’ and other visual virginity tests look for signs of healed tears or scarring. They can have a harrowing effect on survivors of sexual assault, who already face terrible social stigma in the society obsessed with upholding the "honour" of women.

"I wasn't told how they were going to examine me. They only said that I had to be seen by a doctor to help the police," Shazia said of her ordeal from three years ago.

Shazia's parents, who filed the case, later dropped it following family pressure.

‘Mouth of a spoilt girl'

Similar virginity tests are employed in at least 20 countries around the world from Brazil to Zimbabwe, according to the World Health Organisation.

It says the exams amount to human rights violations and have absolutely no scientific merit. But health authorities have long encouraged all girls and women who report rape claims to be subjected to the tests.

"I count this as another rape in itself," Sidra Humayun, an activist who handles sexual assault cases, said.

"Most rape victims I have worked with have spoken of being traumatised by it," she added.

Court documents seen by AFP paint a vivid picture of how female rape victims can be shamed and ridiculed if a medical officer concludes that they have a history of sexual intercourse.

A man convicted of raping a 15-year-old in a village outside the city of Faisalabad was freed on appeal in 2014, after the judge considered the results of the two-finger test.

The invasive examinations are sometimes conducted without the full understanding or even the consent of rape victims, often by practitioners who lack sensitivity training, case workers and lawyers say.

A woman doctor working in one of Lahore's government hospitals said she regarded young rape victims with suspicion.

Without offering any evidence, she claimed that families often fabricate rape claims if they discover an unmarried daughter is having sex.

"But we can easily determine through the tests that we perform whether the girl has had sex before or not. So we know which claim is fake and which isn't," she said on condition of anonymity.

Some historians say virginity tests date back to the colonial era and were used by the British to discredit local rape victims, with the practice widely adopted in India and Pakistan after independence.

"It arose under colonial times as a consequence of the misconception or the stereotypical belief that native women tend to lie about these crimes," explains Sadaf Aziz, a campaigner against the tests.

There are signs of mounting anger over the handling of sexual abuse cases in the country.

The recent gang-rape of a mother in front of her children on a motorway sparked nationwide protests, fuelled by a police chief's comments that she should not have been driving alone at night.

Following the outcry, President Dr Arif Alvi last month approved a new anti-rape law which bans the two-finger test but does not rule out visual virginity examinations.

The law has yet to be ratified by parliament.

But activists this month achieved a major win in Punjab, where the Lahore High Court outlawed all virginity tests.

Lawyers hope it could spur a domino effect across the country, with a similar case making its way through the courts in Sindh.

Sameer Khosa, a lawyer who campaigned for the ban in Punjab, warned that the ruling was just the start of a battle against entrenched patriarchal attitudes in the justice system. "This is something that has been going on for decades."

He added: "Officials will suddenly have to be retrained to understand that this [test] isn't relevant anymore."

Across the border in India, the test continues to be performed despite a formal ban in 2013.

Fourteen-year-old Komal, not her real name, was forced to undergo a virginity test last year while her parents were absent after she was raped by a local temple priest in India.

"[The doctors] didn't ask me anything before doing it," she told AFP over the phone. "It's a matter of shame. It's not good."

Ashif Shaikh, who heads the Indian anti-sexual violence non-profit Jan Sahas, said that his organisation alone identifies "hundreds of cases every year" where the two-finger test is performed.

"It isn't easy for victims to watch their rapists walk free while their own honour is being questioned," said Abdul Ghaffar Khan Chughtai, a lawyer from Bahawalpur. "My client decided not to pursue a case any further because she felt she wouldn't get justice."

COMMENTS (1)

Nadir Shah | 2 years ago | Reply

Only more participation of women in daily life affairs can stop such kinds of evil practices. What if a woman is not a virgin Is that mean she can t be raped What the hell is wrong with society s mindset. 

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