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Panel report pitches psychological safety for rape victims

January 24, 2013 12:41 IST

The Justice J S Verma committee, set up to recommend measures to improve laws dealing with sexual offences, received around 80,000 suggestions, strongly recommends counseling for the rape victims. Vicky Nanjappa looks at some of these recommendations.

While one looks at the recommendations made relating to procedure and punishment in rape cases, it’s not different from what already finds a mention in our law books. However, the important part of this entire is the manner in which the commission has dealt with the psychological aspect of a victim, and more importantly the manner in which it holds the lawmakers accountable while dealing with such cases.

Many legal experts say that the recommendations pertaining to sentencing and punishment are already present in the Indian Penal Code, but the larger issue while dealing with rape cases is the implementation.

“A commission of inquiry is usually set up after a major incident and the findings are merely for a psychological purpose. There is nothing short in the existing laws and at the end of it, the implementation is what matters,” says an expert.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director, Human Rights Watch, says that the recommendations made are great.

“The commission has included the political class, the armed forces and also the police in his report, and this is important. Lawmakers themselves would need to understand that they too fall under the ambit of the law, and this is exactly what the commission has aimed at doing. The commission states that the state should hold itself accountable,” she says.

“It is a good start and if the government is really serious about it then here is something that sets out a template. The scope of the issue has really been widened a great deal, and if the state is really serious then it needs to prioritise what has been recommended by the commission,” she adds.

The commission conducted several interviews and has stated clearly the kind of trauma that a victim undergoes in its report. Both human rights groups as well as legal experts point out that rape is a very psychological issue and what has been seen in most cases is that the victims are afraid to put forth their case fearing trauma.

This part of the commission report, if implemented would go a long way in sorting out the problem as the process of change would commence only if the crime is reported in the first place.

Human rights groups had pointed out that most cases are not reported because of social trauma and hence amends to the system should be made to ensure that a victim is comfortable while reporting the crime.

The report states that a counsellor should be present during the interview/ medical examination of the person assaulted/rape

This is to ensure that the trauma that has already occurred is not compounded and to also set the pace for a subsequent counseling/psychological intervention session.

The counsellor should ensure that the medical examiner follows a semi-structured interview which begins with an open-ended question -- such as -- ‘Please tell us in your own words what happened’

-- At the beginning of the interview, a rapport must be developed with the victim. The interviewer must listen carefully to the description of the incident and use follow-up questions to detail specific aspects of the assault through the relevant questions which are included in the medical protocol. The counsellor should ensure this and also observe the non-verbal cues of the survivor.

-- It is most important that the interviewer be non-judgmental. The crucial approach is to avoid blaming the victim and to prevent the survivor from blaming herself/ himself for the attack.

-- There should be an independent witness present as a patient advocate. This individual will be concerned with the manner in which the survivor is treated. The report has recommended the presence of a health worker/ social organisation worker with the survivor if there is no next friend/ family available. The survivor should always be treated with respect.

-- It should always be remembered that survivors have varying ways of coping with sexual assaults, and survivors who do not appear distressed may be in denial or use forgetting as a coping mechanism. Research has shown that there may be many diverse physical and psychological effects of rape.

Physical consequences may include physical injuries, pain, substance abuse, and sleep disruptions among other symptoms. Common psychological consequences include clinical depression, generalised anxiety, panic disorders and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders. Some of these symptoms, particularly PTSD, develop over a long time, so survivors should receive treatment for short-term and long-term consequences.

-- The counsellor should be able to assess for these common mental health issues after the incident. The counsellor should provide psychological safety -- by reassuring the victim that s/he is safe.

The victim should be referred to a mental health professional if:

  • When suicide risk is high
  • Presence of any major mental disorders
  • Prolonged grief reaction
  • Post traumatic stress disorder
  • History of mental illness prior to the rape

Discussing relationship issues with the victim’s partner/family:

  • Making them understand that the rape is not the fault of the victim
  • Educating them about her symptoms to avoid them from misinterpreting her/his behaviour
  • Discuss areas that the family/partner can help the victim with in the process of recovery
  • Helping the family/partner to deal with their emotions/distress 

Education and preparation for the police report, physical examination

  • How women may respond to a physical exam or intense probing/police interview.
  • Handling the acute consequences of trauma -- believe what the patient says, educate about normal reactions, reassure that she is not at fault, reassure that she is not going crazy, encourage normal activities, encourage interaction with family, decrease shame and guilt.
Vicky Nanjappa