WHEN a judge in the high court of the Indian state of Rajasthan recently acquitted a man of rape, he noted of the accuser, “Her hymen was ruptured and vagina admitted two fingers easily. The medical opinion is that the prosecutrix may be accustomed to sexual intercourse.” The implication was that only a virgin can really be raped.

The so-called “two-finger test”, in which a doctor examines the vagina to decide if a woman is sexually active, was banned in India in 2014, after the Supreme Court ruled that it was an invasion of privacy (as well as irrelevant). In 2016 Pakistan prohibited the test from being used in rape trials. This year Bangladesh followed suit. Yet in all three countries the test is still widely used.

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Last year Human Rights Watch, an international pressure group, found that the test is still routine in Rajasthani hospitals. And this year an Indian human-rights organisation, Jan Sahas, looked at the records of 200 group-rape trials and concluded that the test was a deciding factor in 80% of them.

There have been pockets of progress. In a recent rape trial in the city of Mumbai, the judge disregarded the findings of the two-finger test and cited instead the legal change in 2014. “The girl…has a right to make a choice, which includes a right to deny sexual intercourse to a person without her consent,” he argued. The Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes, another NGO, is working with Mumbai’s public hospitals to stamp out the use of the test.

But in much of India little has changed. Only nine of 29 states have enshrined the Supreme Court’s ruling in local laws, and even when they have, implementation has been patchy. In Pakistan judges who do not follow the law go unchallenged, says Sarah Zaman, who campaigns for women’s rights.

Across South Asia, many doctors are taught outdated ideas in medical school. Jaising P. Modi’s “Medical Jurisprudence and Toxicology”, first published in 1920, remains the standard textbook in the three countries. “The entire medical profession has to be retrained,” says Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch. “It is literally teaching old dogs new tricks.”

New attitudes are even more needed. In Dhaka’s slums it is often said that “women are flames and men are candles,” notes Ruchira Naved of the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease, a campaigning local NGO. “When the candle comes to the flame, it melts.” The implication is that men cannot control their lust; it is up to women to make sure not to arouse it. Such views, laments Dr Naved, are still “pervasive”.

Experts reckon that fewer than 10% of rapes in South Asia are reported. The two-finger test, says Dr Naved, stops women from coming forward “and then stops them getting justice”. In Bangladesh only 22 convictions were secured in 2012-17 out of 18,668 rape cases filed. Politicians make excuses, Mrs Ganguly says: “This is a rural community, they’re very traditional, they’re conservative, it’s a work in progress. I say no, the law is the law. People should jolly well follow it.”

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