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Raped at age 14, Shazia had the courage to inform the police, something rare in Pakistan, where victims are often stigmatized. But she wasn’t prepared for what would come next.
The student was still in shock after being raped by a cousin of her father, when the police forced her to take a virginity test. This practice is common in Pakistan, although it is slowly beginning to be questioned.
In a country where a woman’s alleged virginity is a guarantee of honor, this test, called the “two fingers” test, is supposed to shed light on the victim’s sexual past.
The doctor “told me to spread my legs and put her fingers in,” explains Shazia – her name was changed – in a written interview with AFP.
“It was very painful. I didn’t know what I was doing. I would have liked my mother to be present,” he adds.
In Pakistan, rapes are rarely reported and the word of the victims has only relative value, since much of the country lives under a patriarchal code that systematizes the oppression of women.
The virginity test, which consists of inserting two fingers into the alleged victim’s vagina to see if they “fit easily”, is sometimes considered a central element of any police investigation.
It must be done by a woman, but this is not always the case. It can be performed as a visual examination of the hymen, to observe eventual scars.
Your result can easily turn a file around. Still single women instantly lose all credit if they are defined as sexually active.
According to official figures, only 0.3% of rape cases in Pakistan end in a conviction. Women’s rights defenders and lawyers believe that this review largely explains the low percentage of complaints.
– “Another violation” –
In addition to the legal consequences, it is very traumatic for the victims, who are also subjected to strong social stigmatization that sometimes prevents them from marrying later.
“They didn’t tell me how they were going to examine me,” says Shazia, attacked in 2018. “They only told me that a doctor should see me to help the police.”
Fearing disgrace to her family, the girl’s parents, who filed the complaint, later withdrew it.
The World Health Organization (WHO) considers that virginity tests, common in about twenty countries around the world, have no scientific value and represent a violation of human rights.
“I consider that as rape,” says Sidra Humayun, an activist who helps raped women.
“Most of the rape victims I have worked with say they have been traumatized,” she adds.
Reports of the hearings consulted by AFP show how far victims can be belittled if the doctor concludes that they had sex before.
A man convicted of the rape of a 15-year-old girl in a town near Faisalabad (east) was acquitted on appeal in 2014. The judge considered, based on a virginity test, that the teenager was a “lady of little virtue.” .
“It is not necessary to rely on (their) unsubstantiated assertions, as they come from the mouth of a tainted young woman,” says the verdict.
– A new repressive law –
This examination is often carried out without the consent of the victims or without them being clear about the scope, and by people who are not trained to do it with the required seriousness, social workers and lawyers tell AFP.
One of these examiners, who works in a public hospital in Lahore (east), confesses to AFP that she observes young rape victims with suspicion.
Without offering the slightest evidence to support his argument, he claims that families sometimes fabricate rape accusations when they discover that one of their unmarried daughters had sex, as sex outside of marriage is a very strong taboo.
“You can easily determine with the test whether or not a girl has already had sexual intercourse. And we know if her claims are true or false,” he says, on condition of anonymity.
For some historians, the virginity test dates back to colonial times and was used by the British to discredit indigenous women who were raped. Pakistan and India adopted it after independence in 1947.
Pakistan remains a very conservative country, where women seeking emancipation by choosing husbands or working outside the home are often oppressed. But some signs show that discontent is gaining ground at the way sexual abuse cases are handled.
The September rape of a mother by gang members, in front of her children, next to a highway, caused great commotion, with pro-feminist demonstrations throughout the country.
Called by the protesters to reinforce the crackdown on sex crimes, the government responded with a new law that provides for the chemical castration of rapists.
This law, which came into force in December although it has yet to be ratified in Parliament, also prohibits the “two finger” test, although not the visual examination.
At the beginning of January, the most important court in Lahore, in the Punjab province, the most populous in the country, considered any kind of virginity test illegal for the first time.
– A still long fight –
His opponents hope that this ruling could serve as a precedent, and a court in the southern province of Sindh is currently examining a similar file.
Across the border, in India, this virginity test is still practiced, although it has been prohibited by law since 2013.
Komal-pseudonym-, 14, had to undergo the test last year, without the presence of her parents, after being raped by a Hindu priest.
The doctors “did not tell me anything before doing it,” he told AFP by phone. “They filled me with shame. It is not good to put two fingers in the private parts of a girl.”
The Indian NGO Jan Sahas, which fights against sexual violence, identifies “hundreds of cases each year” in which the test is carried out, according to its director Ashif Shaikh.
Shaikh believes that “the fight will still be a long one for rape victims in Pakistan.”
“It is not easy for victims to see their rapist released while his honor is questioned,” underlines lawyer Abdul Ghaffar Khan Chughtai, from the Pakistani city of Bahawalpur (east).
Sometimes the victims give up the fight. One of her clients “decided not to confirm her claim, because she feels that justice will not be done,” he concludes.
Melissa Galbraith is the World News reporter for Globe Live Media. She covers all the major events happening around the World. From Europe to Americas, from Asia to Antarctica, Melissa covers it all. Never miss another Major World Event by bookmarking her author page right here.