A career in medical profession, more particularly of a doctor, is considered to be the most reputed and noblest of professions throughout the world. And Kashmir is no exception to it.
Kashmiri people place doctors and the medical fraternity on highest pedestal of respect and honour and rightly so as they save lives on daily basis. But the healthcare system in the valley is afflicted with some destructive ailments like the nexus between doctors and pharma companies, private practice in office hours etc.
In the din of such issues one of the most serious problems related to the doctors and paramedics gets overlooked and subdued. It pertains to sexual abuse by the medical professionals. Such sexual abuse may be of different forms like inappropriate physical touching, examination not clinically justified, sexually suggestive remarks etc.
There is a fine line between examination that is clinically justified and that which amounts to overstepping the boundaries and amounting to sexual abuse.
This demarcation gets obscured and clouded by lack of awareness and education. There is low chance of suspicion because this is a very grey area. A girl normally can tell the difference between a sexual and a social touch but the technical nature of healthcare clouds her judgment.
I asked a few of my female friends about ever having experienced any sexually flavoured advances by a doctor or a paramedic and I got shocking narrations from many. Slowly, the holy and noble image of doctors began to fade and they looked as humans, who, like any other person, turn devilish and corrupt.
A girl had gone to an orthopaedist for her lower back problems and while showing her some bodily exercises the doctor touched her hips and pressed his body against hers though not forcefully. Was that sexual abuse or a part of treatment or was that accidental, she was left with these questions, pale and shut not knowing what to do or say. A friend of mine once got an injury on her inner thigh. Quickly she went to the neighbourhood medical shop for dressing the wound but little did she know that beyond the smiling and acquainted face of this jolly person hides a devil and a sick person. When he started dressing the wound, he started moving his hands towards her behind and feeling it with his hands telling her all the while beta, choti and other terms of endearment to masquerade his sexual depravity as innocent gesture. Another incident that happened with a girl was when she went to see a doctor for abdominal pain. As the doctor started examining her belly he slowly moved his hands downwards trying to make it feel a necessary part of examination, then finally groping her genitals, telling her that he was trying to see if it was somehow related to ovaries. She felt uneasiness but was restrained from telling whether this was sexual abuse or routine examination. Another patient, a girl in her early teens, had gone for doing an X-ray of her lower spine, she got her bum pressed by the radiologist, told that she needs to keep her body in place.
It hardly scratches the surface of the problem that is very much in existence in our society. What I mean by all this is not to demonize doctors and medical staff and that all of them are sex offenders but that not only is there a reasonable possibility of sexual abuse but a large number of females have actually been victims of such behaviour.
Doctors at the end are humans and the crime is a crime no matter who commits it. What coats cannot paint everything clean and cannot hide moral turpitude.
A patient is unaware about the technicalities and confusingly asks herself were they not truly done or was it relevant and necessary? Was this a part of examination. Slowly the noble and holy image of doctor engulfs and eats the suspicion which is then pushed to the back of the mind. They feel uneasy but have to push their concerns for fear of being judged wrongly or being inaccurate in their judgment. It gets more difficult when it comes to a breast examination or an examination by gynaecologist or obstetrician or an ultrasound of intimate body parts. Doctors are supposed to touch during an examination but not fondle and touch sexually. When physicians barge through the sacred boundaries of the doctor patient relationship it amounts to a crime of highest degree. The notion of all knowing, totally trustworthy doctor is so ingrained in our psyche that some victims actually suspect their own judgment. Many females are caught in a dilemma whether or not a specific intimate examination was necessarily required.
There may be numerous such untold, unknown instances of sexual abuse that aren’t discussed or disclosed because they have not been understood and also because of the stigma attached. It is easier to keep things hidden and secret than to speak out and raise your voice. Being silent and hiding won’t help but make one complicit in such crimes against further victims. It will keep them on an alert if such issues are raised.
First step to prevent this is being aware. The best way to defend oneself from sexual abuse by a medical professional is through awareness and education. Below mentioned are a few points that can help in this direction:
• Women should prefer going to female doctors for intimate health problems.
• A woman should never allow a doctor to examine her breasts, her pelvis or her genitals if she hasn’t gone for that specific problem.
• Do not allow the doctor or paramedic to digress from the issue and get intimate with you.
• Women don’t need to undress before a medico for having her heartbeat checked by a stethoscope.
• It should be borne out in mind beforehand about what body parts are likely to be examined by the doctor so as to dress accordingly and not having to take off all the clothes.
• It should never be assumed that a well reputed doctor can never do any inappropriate thing.
• Women should prefer doing bodily investigations like transvaginal ultrasound or abdominal x-ray etc. by female technicians or at least in presence of a female.
• Whenever a female feels something wrong even though she may not be correct, she should prevent the person from going further or at least ask about its necessity. She is not legally bound to be silent and dumb.
Healthcare requires the highest level of ethics, morality and standard. When those who practice it, do such acts it actually is a breach of public trust. It all happens under a blanket of secrecy and the lid needs to be slid wide open. This issue calls for an immediate social debate on a wider platform with some serious questions that need to be asked and that need to be answered. There is a boundary between doctors and patients that has to be respected and not allowed to be transgressed.
(The author is a 4th year law student at Kashmir University and currently doing an internship with State Human Rights Commission. Can be contacted at: [email protected])