By Haroon Janjua
Dr Summaiya Syed Tariq, additional police surgeon, examining sexual assault survivors at Jinnah Post Graduate Medical Center in southern Pakistan’s Karachi city. She was on duty earlier this week when the Lahore High Court in Pakistan’s Punjab province outlawed the use of two-finger tests or “virginity tests” on female survivors of rape. “It is a giant leap for the womenfolk”, Dr Tariq told VICE World News.
The High Court noted that these tests have “no medico-legal basis” in the South Asian country of 220 million people and it “offends the personal dignity of the female victim and therefore is against the right to life and right to dignity.”
“Virginity testing is highly invasive, having no scientific or medical requirement, yet carried out in the name of medical protocols in sexual violence cases,” read the order by Justice Ayesha A Malik.
The ruling applies only to the Punjab province.
In December 2020, Pakistan’s President Arif Alvi outlawed virginity tests across the country through an ordinance but it is yet to be enforced.
Since the start of her career in 1999, Dr Tariq said she practised the two-finger test. By 2010, she refrained from using it and stopped it completely in 2015. “The WHO guidelines for examination of rape victims hold that these tests have no scientific basis”, said Dr Tariq. “I wish that these tests were outlawed long ago”.
Dr Tariq has been campaigning to ban the intrusive procedure. “This [two-finger test] is an easy way out for the examiners compared to other ways of gathering evidence. While training medico-legal officers, I insist they do not practice this thing”.
According to the World Health Organization, virginity tests are done to determine whether a woman or girl’s hymen—a soft thin tissue which partially covers the vagina is ruptured to check if she has had sexual intercourse.
If in a case, the two-finger test concludes that an unmarried woman was sexually active before the assault took place, the discourse instantly shifts to the woman. As a result, the follow-up procedure which involves forensic probe and collecting the vaginal swabs is perceived insignificant.
For many medico-legal officers, this is a convenient method to bypass the strenuous process of gathering evidence.
Multiple WMLOs declined to admit that they have conducted these tests.
Some health workers prefer conducting the virginity test to hasten the medical examination process. “After conducting the two-finger test, they write that ‘on the basis of the clinical examinations she is not a virgin and final opinion regarding sexual assault will be given after receiving of reports’”, said Dr Tariq.” “It is akin to raping a survivor again”.
The United Nations has documented virginity tests in 20 countries including Pakistan — a predominantly conservative patriarchal society. Neighbouring countries India and Bangladesh banned the practice in 2013 and 2018 respectively.
Rights groups say women are often tested without their consent. “Many survivors are not aware of the exact procedure and they are being tested without their consent”. Sidra Humayun, a working Committee member with War Against Rape, an organisation that runs a support group for survivors, told VICE World News.
Dr Aimen Khurshid (29), a WMLO working under the supervision of Dr Tariq told VICE World News, “The two-finger test is humiliating for sexual assault victims. Both the procedure of the test and documentation is absurd and ridiculous.”
Dr Khurshid conducts 40-50 such tests each year at one of the biggest government hospitals in Karachi. She believes the practice reflects the mindset of Pakistani society. “People believe that women are always wrong. In many cases, it leads to their character being assassinated”.
Karachi, a city of 15 million people where Dr Tariq and Dr Khurshid work, currently has only 12 WMLOs. In 2018, there were only five.
A sexual assault survivor based in Lahore city explained to VICE World News the trauma of undergoing a virginity test. “The female doctor did not know how to conduct the medico-legal examination. She called her senior, a male doctor. He conducted the test on me and asked his junior to observe. It was really humiliating for me”.
Several WMLOs including Dr Khurshid continue conducting such tests. They say they have not received any new guidelines so far. “We have not given any orders from the government to stop conducting this test. I conducted these tests on four rape survivors in the last week of December”.
Not everyone is hailing the court verdict. Many argue that in cases where the survivor is a minor, the test can instantly prove whether there was a sexual assault or not. The survivor does not have to wait for a time consuming forensic test. Dr Shumaila Abbas, a WMLO in the eastern Pakistani city of Sialkot is unhappy with the ban. “There should not be a blanket ban on two-finger tests,” said Dr Abbas. “It should be allowed for fresh rape cases and teenage virgin girls to reach the conclusion. “It should be allowed in cases in which there is no other way to say anything conclusively in a time-bound manner.”
According to data from an NGO working for women’s rights and child protection, there were 1868 reported cases of rape in Pakistan and 928 child sexual cases of abuse during the first half of 2020. The conviction rate of rape cases in Pakistan is less than 3 percent.
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