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Rape investigations in India
07:48 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Rape prompts reform demands, including those for medical exams

Health ministry has revised proforma to do away with "finger test" method

Activists: Invasive hymen observations, irrelevant details still remain

With a glaring spotlight on sexual violence after a fatal gang-rape case, a high-profile government panel has joined women’s rights advocates in demanding changes to India’s sexual assault medical exam.

Advocates say the exam includes unnecessarily invasive and irrelevant procedures.

The exam can include detailed observation of the victim’s hymen, the description of her nourishment level and body, and a so-called “two finger” test.

The finger exam consists of the doctor inserting two fingers into the woman’s body to determine whether she is used to sexual intercourse. The underlying assumption is that if two fingers pass, the woman is used to sexual intercourse.

“Are you trying to say married women can’t get raped? That only virgins get raped?” asked Donna Fernandes, of Vimochana, a women’s organization in Bangalore. “That she couldn’t have been raped, because she was used to sexual intercourse? It’s an unscientific way to approaching whether the rape has happened or not.”

READ: Rape case ‘an awakening’ for India, victim’s father says

Advocates like Fernandes who have called for reform in the medical exam have received critical backing from a panel appointed by India’s home affairs minister.

Last week, the commission published a 600-page report calling for several policy changes, such as creating a new offense of gang rape punishable by at least 20 years in prison, making it a crime for police to fail to investigate sexual assault complaints and banning the consideration of character or previous sexual experience of the victim at a criminal trial.

The panel report came after the outrage over the gang rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, which prompted calls for reform on how rape is addressed by India’s police, courts and government. It has prompted initial changes – such as increasing the number of women working in New Delhi police stations and official pledges to strengthen laws regarding rape and assault.

The five suspects accused of taking part in the December 16 gang rape of a woman in New Delhi, are being tried in a “fast-track” court designed to bypass red tape. The sixth suspect in the gang rape is a minor and will be tried in juvenile court, according to police.

READ: Prominent Indian lawyer wary of rape investigations

The government-appointed panel, headed by India’s former chief justice, J.S. Verma, devoted a chapter of its report to medical exams, criticizing controversial aspects that delve into a woman’s sexual history such as the finger test and the hymen observation.

“A test to ascertain the laxity of the vaginal muscles which is commonly referred to as the two-finger test must not be conducted,” the report stated. It also added that the “observations/conclusions such as ‘habituated to sexual intercourse’ should not be made and this is forbidden by law.”

The two finger test “has nothing to do with the rape case,” said Dr. Jagadeesh Reddy, professor of forensic medicine at Vydehi Medical College in Bangalore. “After a sexual assault, doing a two-finger test is not scientific.”

The finger test is not an accurate test of sexual activity, as doctors have different sized fingers and in some cases, report opposite findings on the same patient, he said.

In obstetrics, the two-finger exam is used to check the progress of labor. But in the context of a sexual assault exam, it is used to indicate a woman’s sexual history, which has enraged activists.