How Medical Profession Fails Rape Victims in India: A Doctor’s First-Hand Account

Puneet Bedi

Dr. Puneet Bedi is a Senior consultant in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Apollo Hospital in Delhi.

Around midnight on a cold January morning I was called to the emergency Room. I had just joined the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and was till ‘looking around’ and trying to get the feel of the specialty. I entered what was euphemistically called an Emergency Room (E.R. for those who see TV hospital soaps). A room with an old table covered with green Rexene, the kind you see in MCD offices, and a few registers and papers kept on top of it. A few chairs and a bench strewn around in no particular order. The adjacent room, the examination room, had a flat table and no attempt to cover it with a mattress or a sheet was ever made. The dividing door had a tattered curtain was so dirty that one could only speculate that it may have been yellow in color when it was hung years ago. There were 2 male Cops in the room, a female cop and a miserable looking woman in rags. The matronly nurse sitting on the only chair which could accommodate her ample body, screamed at the ward boy as soon as she saw me. “Maine REGISTRAR ko bulaya tha, pata nahin ‘Rape case’ hai!’ (I called the registrar, don’t you know it is a rape case).

I had received no counseling or instructions on joining the department, and since I was a ‘local’ student (MBBS from the same med school) a formal introduction was considered unnecessary. All I had figured out in the 2 weeks I had been there was that those in labor had to be redirected to the ‘labor ward’ after some preliminary examination and paperwork. That was easy until someone decided to push the baby right at your face and then you had to cry bloody murder and run for a senior. Most others, who I was sure would live another day, were given some painkillers or tests and asked to come to the OPD the next day. In case the patient had something serious, which means anything I did not understand, I would admit them hoping someone who knows something about the whole thing would see the patient sooner or later in the ward. One thing I knew for sure however was that Rape was a serious matter, and had to be seen immediately by a Senior Resident, also called registrars. (A post MD specialist, the senior most specialist available in house in large teaching hospitals). The Registrar on duty that night was a female so I thought it would be more appropriate to let her come and do all the talking and to examine the woman, as I was sure the rape victim would be more comfortable with a woman doctor. I had no idea what to expect in a real life rape victim. We had read that we are supposed to be sympathetic, patient, understanding, comforting, gentle even before we approach the victim. And we were supposed to take as much evidence as possible and as lucid a history of events as possible, as soon as possible. Well the only rape I was familiar with was from B grade Bollywood movies which involved a lot of screaming by the victim, and few grunts of the rapist, a few broken lamps and it was all over in 30 seconds. This one should be different. I was curious, and wanted to see what goes on. Anyway I had to wait around for the ‘Madam’ to come and examine while I do the clerking (paper work).

The ward boy was dispatched again in search of the elusive registrar and we all waited. After about ½ an hour the sister decided enough was enough and left a message that she should be called if and when the doctor concerned comes and disappeared into a duty room where some tea was boiling in a pan meant for boiling syringes. Finally, after many requests.

From the cops and the hapless ward boy who was repeatedly told “MADAM” was busy, I went straight to the ‘duty room’ and found her fast asleep. I knocked like a mad man until she screamed form inside that she would take 5 min. She walked the 40 feet distance between her room and the ER about 40 minutes later, that too after three similar visits to the same room and knocking loudly on the door. The lady Doctor arrived probably 3 ½ hours after the victim had been brought (We are taught that a delay of minutes can be detrimental in collecting vital evidence). She came and started screaming at everyone, me for ‘disturbing her’, the cops for bringing the victim at an unearthly hour, the sister who was not there, the ward boy for not informing her earlier, and the victim for being the victim. Soon an ‘injury sheet’ was taken out. A very officious / legal looking broad sheet, with diagrams of a human body on it. I was instructed to look for MIs (marks of Identification) on her, and take her thumb prints on the injury sheet. By this time the woman looked really scared. She started stuttering and the more she stuttered or hesitated in answering the questions screamed at her, the more the doctor shouted. Her first question was “show me the injuries”. When the woman was able to show only bruises, the doctor pronounced a judgement, “She is shamming it”, “She is a liar”. The doctor offered various theories on why the victim was there, not even one of them was a remote possibility of rape. Suddenly the sister started pulling all her clothes in my presence, and when the victim resisted, the female cop assisted in ‘cheer haran’ and more shouting followed. The clothes I later learnt had to be sealed and sent for forensics, but never imagined the process of removing the rags from her thin body would be so brutal. And soon, at 3 AM in January with no room heater around, she was there stark naked. The examination room was fairly hidden from the male cops and ward boys in the next room by a tattered curtain. Frankly I had never seen a fully naked woman till then in my 22 years on this planet and was very uncomfortable. I left the examination room pretending to look for a pen or something but could hear the conversation from the outside room. No part of the conversation could be repeated here as it would make a sailor blush. It would suffice to say that there wasn’t even a minor hint of empathy with the victim by any of the women inside, the nurse, the doctor and the female cop. I am not sure why the doctor was so upset. Her beauty sleep had been interrupted perhaps. Maybe she hated all women who were raped especially if they were poor as well. The usual things she shouted through the door which I faithfully copied. Her examination showed a loose vagina (implying the woman used to sex, and since she was not a virgin it could not have been a big deal. The implications of these ridiculous statements I understood years later when I testified in courts in rape cases as a specialist witness). The ‘defence ‘ lawyers main aim in court was to prove that the woman had a loose character, and the vaginal laxity on ‘Medical Exaimantion’ was quoted as proof. The ‘injury sheet’ was filled up with irrelevant information in my barely legible handwriting. Perhaps the obnoxious term “LOOSE WOMAN”, or a woman of loose character is derived from there.

The ‘findings’ shouted from the examination room by the registrar were faithfully copied by me on the Injury sheet. Every alternate sentence of the woman was ‘Bedi jaldi likho”. After waiting for 3 ½ hour I wonder what the woman Doctor was in a hurry for, getting back to her sleep. Two smears were made from the vaginal secretions, to identify semen and thus track the rapists and nail him. Soon the ordeal was over, a blanket was brought on my insistence for the victim after the doctor left. Suddenly I asked for the slides (the ones which could carry vital evidence of rape) and the sister assured me that it has been ‘packed’ and would be sent tomorrow the right lab. I insisted to see the bottle in which they were preserved to see it was done properly. She said it was done already. After 10 minutes of argument she opened a packet which looked like a ‘hakimji ki puria’. It had the two slides, slapped against each other and wrapped like a ‘puria’ with brown paper. It was my time to scream “Which lab can find sperms now ? you have ruined the smears” . The sister there thought I was mad as that is how it is always done. Rather than argue with a nurse who obviously had not read anything about preserving evidence in rape cases, I want back to our ‘madam’ to rudely disrupt her sleep again. She also thought I was mad, it was not her job. I suggested taking fresh smears and she shooed me off.

Years went by, I became a registrar eventually and examined rape victims, hundreds of them. Babies, toddlers, preteens and kids, adult women and old women. Those days there was no 24×7 news channel so no one thought it was news. We should have made more noise and try to raise a public outrage against rape, child abuse and domestic violence, but we did not. Regretfully I cannot claim things were better on my watch. I hope I tried to record evidence more diligently and was a little more humane to the victims, but I doubt if it changed anything. We never saw anything after the slides and other vital evidence like clothes left our ER. We were summoned as a specialist witness and if the cases I heard argued were not an exception, there was no possibility or justice. The whole thing was a big joke. The cases go on for even. The lawyers make mockery of the victims and use language the women have never heard before, in open court. And if the victims are the anti-national Kashmiri women or those form the north east, and the rapists are nationalistic men in uniform, one cannot even dream of getting justice.

Almost ten years later when about 400 rape cases reviewed, they found that most accused went scot free because ‘Medical Evidence’ was inconclusive. EVERYTIME I hear this “Lack of medical evidence”, I am reminded of my initiation into the process of medical evidence recording in Rape cases.

In the last 30 years my memory has failed me many times but that cold January night, when I saw what is done to rape victims in India. I vividly remember. So when I heard what the latest victims had to say about their encounter with the Doctor, I am not surprised. Things have only gotten worse in public hospitals since our residency days.

I have heard everything Soli Soni went through, in police station, hospitals, courts and after. But then she is a poor tribal, who can be declared an anti-national and Naxalite and be done away with anytime. What about an American who is raped by a celebrity? a baby raped inside her own home. Sometimes the victim is told that she is too old to be raped, (LIKE BHANWARI DEVI WAS TOLD), sometimes too young. BUT in the end, once again what has failed the nation, and prevented justice to the victims, helpless women, is the medical profession. Had they followed the book, taken more care, showed morempathy, a lot more rapists would be behind bars today. (Ironically, more often than not, women doctors who examine these rape victims).

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