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Challenging the myth of rape in court

The World Health Organization (WHO) has just published a new toolkit for lawyers and other professionals on strengthening medico-legal responses to victims of sexual violence. This toolkit addresses many of the myths of rape which we have been challenging for many many years.

One of the myths that we have been challenging in our work is that rape is not usually a violent crime committed by a stranger. In fact, most rapes are committed by someone known to the victim and most rapes do not cause genital injuries. As such, a medical examiner is not likely to observe genital injuries in the victim's medical examination report. Sadly, the absence of physical and genital injuries has usually led to an adverse inference found against victims. We call upon health professionals, prosecutors and judges not to solely rely on evidence of physical or genital injury as an indicator of rape.

"Because many rapes do not involve a significant amount of physical force, in most cases of sexual violence there will not necessarily be any physical injuries. In non-conflict settings, only approximately one third of rape victims sustain visible physical injuries."

It is up to lawyers to break the system's pious reliance on genital injuries as conclusive proof of rape.

Some takeaways:

  • Help judges see the actual experience of the victim of rape as opposed to popular fiction on how rape usually occur.

  • Explain the absence of injuries. For e.g.:

  • The client "gave in" to the rape to avoid further harm by her perpetrator or let it be done with as soon as possible.

  • The client lost consciousness momentarily (as such, no resistance and injuries)

  • Help the judge see that the victim's reactions were normal, expected, reasonable, even sympathetic?

  • Use expert medical opinion to clarify "irrational behaviours" such as the reasons why victims of rape choose to stay with their abusers.

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