Gender Violence:The Health Impact – Role of Forensic Evidence in Accessing Justice

by Sheila Jayaprakash

Forensic evidence is a specialised branch of medical jurisprudence wherein material is collected and collated in order to form a body of evidence from which scientifically based deductions may be made. Forensic evidence can be very important in a criminal investigation, and has an impact on the entire criminal justice delivery system. An investigation by the police is aided by the report of forensic experts. These findings are then used by the prosecution or defence lawyers in presenting their case and could be one of the grounds on which the judge acquits or convicts the accused. This brings in the laboratory analyst or scientist as a crucial link into the dispensation of criminal justice. Forensic scientists work closely with the police in gathering material or in the analysis of material sent to their laboratories. Forensic laboratories have been largely set up and run by the government and such laboratories by default become another link in the chain of law enforcement.

Forensic evidence may be used in the analysis of fingerprints or handwriting to identify persons. DNA testing by laboratories has been used to confirm the identity of a deceased victim or parentage in civil cases or to identify perpetrators of homicide, rape or other criminal offences. Autopsies use forensic science to deduce the cause of death and the analysis of toxic substances found in the body of the victim. Forensic experts are also called in for cases involving drugs or the use of firearms. Thus, forensic reports could be the basis of physical evidence in a criminal or civil case; forensic evidence could also be used to form a database outside the criminal system in substantiating statistical deductions.

Forensic evidence has been important in obtaining convictions in rape cases. The identity of the accused has in several cases been based on semen analysis found in or on the clothing of the victim. The collection of this piece of evidence has to be done at the earliest point of time. When a rape complaint is filed with the police, they should immediately take the victim to the nearest hospital. Women’s rights activists have for a long time called for ‘standardised kits for collection of evidence of rape’, with detailed directions for the method of use. Samples collected by the doctor, such as vaginal swabs, are then sent to a laboratory for analysis. This could result in crucial evidence that ultimately leads to a conviction.

The importance of forensic evidence in the justice system places great emphasis on the existence of proper laboratories. They must have well-qualified staff, not only for analysis and reports, but also to give evidence in a court of law when necessary. Moreover, the laboratories must prevent loss or contamination of samples. All law-enforcing agencies must have easy access to such laboratories, while the reporting of forensic evidence must be standardised – the accuracy of such reports has to be maintained because of their evidentiary value. The number of laboratories that offer such services is little, and with the need for more forensic laboratories, private laboratories have begun offering these services.

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Sheila Jayapraksash is a prominent Chennai based advocate who is an active women’s lawyer who never minces her
words when it comes to voicing issues of crimes against women. A veteran in her field, she started her career by launching a writ petition on behalf of sex workers in Mumbai. Even as a busy Madras High Court prosecutor, she is one of Chennai’s leading women’s rights activists.

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What do you do if you have been raped?

Nisha Susan takes a ‘comprehensive look at how Indian women can navigate the first few days after rape’. Read the excerpt below and the full story here (Yahoo India, 2 July 2013).

What do you do if you have been raped?

Despite being warned to expect it all your life, despite all the chatter of the last few months, you probably still don’t know how to deal with sexual assault. A comprehensive look at how Indian women can navigate the first few days after rape.

For many women there comes that odd, jolting moment when you realize you have structured your life around avoiding being raped.

That moment sneaks up on you. Perhaps it’s because you caught yourself thinking twice about sitting down on the footpath. You were tired while waiting for the bus but you thought twice and continued standing, holding your heavy bag. And suddenly it occurred to you that you didn’t want to sit on the footpath because you didn’t want to attract attention, and you didn’t want to attract attention because you didn’t want to be raped. And in that moment the absurdity hit you. It’s as if you had been a man and every sentient particle of your life had been arranged around avoiding being mugged or murdered.

That moment sneaks up on you. The moment passes and you go back to unconsciously arranging your life around avoiding this one crime. Every time you hear footsteps behind you, every time you open your front door, every time you walk through a basement parking lot, every time you turn into a dark street, you wonder – Is this the one? Is this how it’s going to happen? As comedian Ever Mainard says, “The problem is that every woman has that one moment when you think, here’s my rape! This is it. OK, 11:47 pm, how old am I? 25? All right, here’s my rape! It’s like we wait for it, like, what took you so long?”

For some of us – for at least 24,923 documented Indian women in 2012 alone – there has come that other unfortunate, jolting moment when you have been raped.

Three out of four times, you are likely to have been raped by someone familiar, someone familial: your uncle comes to drop off a tiffin box and stays to chase you round the house, breaking everything you try to hide behind, pulling the landline wire out of the wall. Your brother-in-law tries to rape you when you are five months pregnant. Your former husband decides that divorce isn’t quite enough. The sarpanch of your village. Your nephew. Your brother’s friend. Your brother. Your father.

Here is your rape. It has come. And here comes that epiphany. The realization that you have been warned about this moment your whole life but still don’t know what you are supposed to do afterwards.

After December 16, after the gang rape in Delhi, parents across India have clutched harder at their restless daughters. Well-meaning men and women have recited the gruesome details of that gang rape to each other, asking, “Can you imagine anything worse?” Women talk to their friends about how much more scared they are of strangers. A warm fug of paranoia has enveloped us, binding us closer to the homes and neighbourhoods where we apparently need not fear anything.

But here is that moment in that familiar place. You have been raped. Six months of paranoia later – are you kidding me, a lifetime of paranoia later – you still don’t know what you are supposed to do.If you are the kind of person who thinks buying insurance is inviting death or illness, you may not want to read any further. Crippling your life with the fear of rape – you’ve got plenty of that already.

You may choose not to seek justice, to never report the crime, to not discuss it. But if you wish to make a recovery, if you intend to seek justice, if you want to punish the man or men who have raped you, the first 24 hours are the most crucial. Coping with that first day’s procedures will shape the way rape affects your life.

In the news: Facing up to Rape

An editorial in The Hindu today (18 May 2012) on poor conviction rates and delayed justice for those who report rape in India. ‘Facing up to Rape’ points out that increased reporting of gender and sexual violence (up from 2919 in 1973 to 20,262 in 2010) has not been matched by an increase in conviction rates (in fact, down from 37 per cent to 26 per cent in the same period).

This is something all of us at Prajnya always worry about, as we think up and organise programmes, workshops, etc. We urge women to be bold, to assert themselves, to report crimes, to end the silence. But it sometimes does seem like we’re creating the demand without any supply to meet it. And somewhere, that doesn’t seem right. No easy answers of course, but this seems as good a time as any to voice our concerns.