In this file photo taken, a supporter of Pakistani Islamic political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) holds a placard reading “Stop” during a protest against an alleged gang rape of a woman, in Lahore. — AFP

LAHORE: Raped at 14, Shazia took the rare and courageous step of reporting the crime to Pakistani police, only to face a traumatic “virginity test”-a long-standing practice that denies justice to victims. The teenager 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.

Shazia, not her real name, told AFP in a written statement about the invasive test. “It was very painful. I didn’t know why she was doing it. I wish my mother had been with me.” In a country where rape is vastly underreported 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 Pakistan’s abysmal rape conviction rate, activists and lawyers say, with official data putting it as low as 0.3 percent. A woman is supposed to conduct the examinations, but this guideline is not always followed. Other visual virginity tests-sometimes using glass rods-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 a country obsessed with upholding the “honor” 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.

Similar virginity tests are employed in at least 20 countries around the world from Brazil to Zimbabwe, according to the World Health Organization. It says the exams amount to human rights violations and have absolutely no scientific merit. But Pakistani 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 traumatized by it.” 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 and ruled that the teenager was a “lady of easy virtue”. “The uncorroborated statement of (the victim) may not be relied upon as it came from the mouth of a spoilt girl,” the judgment said.

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 told AFP 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.

Pakistan remains a deeply conservative nation, yet there are signs of mounting anger over the handling of sexual abuse cases.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, Pakistan’s president 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.— AFP