"This action made me nauseous enough to relive the trauma of being raped."
That’s what a woman at the Indian Air Force College in Redfields, Coimbatore, who accused her colleague of rape, felt after she claimed that she was subjected to the 'two-finger' test, an illegal preliminary, unscientific examination of rape victims to ascertain sexual abuse, by medical officers at the academy.
She also stated that the attitude of some of the officers who were made aware of the assault was to force the victim into withdrawing the complaint.
The incident has once again highlighted the lack of empathy while dealing with sexual assault victims and why the ‘two-finger’ test is not only illegal but unethical and a violation of human rights.
The 28-year-old in her FIR detailed the events and said that the assault took place on 9 September.
She states, in the FIR, that she had suffered an injury on 9 September after which she had taken a painkiller. Later in the day, she went to the Officers’ Mess Bar and had two drinks with her coursemates. The accused man had allegedly insisted on paying for one of her drinks.
The officer said she vomited and went to bed, and two friends (one male and the other female) took care of her and latched the room from outside before leaving.
As she was sleeping, the accused allegedly came in, tried to wake her up, and tried to kiss her. She kept pushing him away but was unsuccessful due to her ankle injury.
The next thing she remembered, the FIR said, was a female friend asking her if the man was in the room with her consent.
The next day, according to the FIR, she confronted the accused, who expressed regret at having invaded her privacy. But her female friend showed her semen stains on the bed.
On 11 September, she was told to meet two faculty members, who gave her two options — either file a complaint or give a written statement that everything was consensual. She was directed to go to the Air Force Hospital.
The doctors questioned her sexual history and performed a two-finger test on her.
The survivor in her FIR alleged that senior officers including those in charge of administering medical treatment to her had pressurised her to withdraw her complaint.
Finally after mustering up some courage, she filed a police complaint at AWPS (Central) Coimbatore city on 20 September, following which the accused was arrested.
When he was produced before the Mahila court, IAF contended that the case be handed over to them. Since the victim and police objected to it, the court extended his judicial custody to 30 September.
The ‘Two-finger’ test
As per the survivor's claim in her FIR, she was subjected to the two-finger test, which has been banned by the Supreme Court since 2013.
The woman said she was unaware of the SC ruling, and that the test made her nauseous to relive the trauma, the FIR said.
In 2013, the apex court in the case of Lilu@Rajesh and Anr v. State of Haryana held that the two-finger test must not be practiced as it was unconstitutional and the previous sexual experience of the victim should not be taken into account or consideration while determining the consent or the quality of the consent given by the victim.
The Supreme Court described opinions based on the two-finger test as hypothetical and opinionative.
In the year 2014, the Union Ministry of Health framed new guidelines for treating rape victims. Under the purview of those guidelines, every hospital was expected to have a separate room for the medical and forensic examination of the victim. These guidelines also outlawed the two-finger test conducted on the victims terming it to be unscientific.
After all, two fingers alone cannot tell the truth.
Reliving the trauma
According to the World Health Organization, the test is “unethical”, as a detailed examination of the hymen alone is often questionable in cases of suspected rape.
Apart from the violation of human rights, the test “could cause additional pain and mimic the original act of sexual violence, leading to re-experience, re-traumatisation and re-victimisation.”
“The test is rape in itself,” says Sheraz Ahmed, Program Officer at War Against Rape (WAR), an NGO that assists survivors of sexual assault to report cases and provides legal advisory services, including counselling, and empower women during the rehabilitation process.
In 2010, Human Rights Watch, an NGO, had issued a report calling for a ban of the test after its staff interviewed women who had undergone the test, activists, lawyers and doctors.
"This test is yet another assault on a rape survivor, placing her at risk of further humiliation," said Aruna Kashyap, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Despite it being banned, however, the practice continues and Padma Deosthali, a coordinator for the Center for Health and Allied Themes, a Mumbai-based nonprofit for victims of sexual abuse, explains in a report to Women's Enews why that is the case.
"The fact is that the government believes in the value of the two-finger test, as do most doctors."
Deosthali says the entire system is set up to disbelieve any woman who complains of sexual assault, which is why the test has survived for so long.
Lack of empathy and sensitisation
Another issue that the IAF case highlights is the lack of empathy and sensitization needed while dealing with sexual assault cases.
For instance, the survivor in her FIR states that the presiding officer in her complaint was very “rude” throughout. The officer also allegedly tried to make the complainant’s friend sign the withdrawal of the complaint statement.
She also alleged that it was traumatising to see her attacker every day on campus and even telling somewhat he had done to her.
The FIR states that according to the survivor, she received no guidance from the legal and paralegal officers under whose supervision she was doing the course. She also alleged that she was “blackmailed” to either go file a police complaint or “trust the system”.
She recalled several instances of harassment and moral policing by college authorities, such as a Wing Commander instructor stating in a class how women officers were smoking and drinking more and this was being noticed by orderlies.
Activists have stated repeatedly that a compassionate and empathetic approach to sexual assault cases is mandatory.
From people dealing with the initial complaint to the doctors, police and the courts themselves need to show empathy and compassion in these cases.
As Flavia Agnes, a women’s rights lawyer said that a focus on what happens in courts is a must.
For instance, in an October 2012 verdict, a Madhya Pradesh court held that a rape complainant was a “consenting party” because “looking to her physical examination, she was habitual to do the intercourse" and therefore she knew about the act but she did not complain to anybody till she reached home.
A Human Rights Watch report of 2017 highlights that survivors find it difficult to register police complaints. They often suffer humiliation at police stations and hospitals.
As Anjali Dave of the School of Gender Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai stated in the report: "Rape is still constructed as women’s shame and there are so many social barriers for women to talk about it."
Moreover, a trial process can be intimidating and confusing and shaming the victim is still very much prevalent in the courts. Biased and derogatory language toward sexual assault survivors is still too often used in courtrooms not only by judges but by defense lawyers. Effective legal assistance for survivors could help to address such bias.
Activists keep reiterating that if these key aspects don't change, women will continue not only the horror of rape but also have to burden the guilt that comes along with it.
With inputs from agencies