With only five female medico-legal officers (MLOs) working in government-run hospitals across the city, women brought to ERs with injuries as well as victims of gender-based violence continue to face problems in getting timely examination and ultimately justice.
Karachi’s major state-run hospitals have been facing an acute shortage of female MLOs as several posts are lying vacant, while the number of women MLO seats has also not been increased with time.
With a population of more than 7.6 million women, just five working female MLOs means only one female MLO is available per 1.5 million women – a significant medical and legal gap for a city prone to violence, street crime and violence against women.
There are a total of nine sanctioned posts of female MLOs in Karachi. Five women are working in these positions at three major hospitals – Civil Hospital, Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre and Abbasi Shaheed Hospital. Among the four remaining positions, three are lying vacant while one officer has been declared an absconder.
Because of the dearth of women MLOs in other government hospitals, CHK, JPMC and ASH have been facing the burden of cases from not only the entire city but also rural Sindh and some parts of Balochistan.
Karachi Police Surgeon Dr Aijaz Ahmed Khokhar admitted that there is lack of women MLOs and that his department has been facing a number of challenges, the major ones being saving precious lives and preserving evidence.
Long waitsAccording to women’s rights organisations, the number of cases of gender-based violence against women, including domestic violence, rape, kidnapping and murder, has increased in the past few years.
Against this backdrop, the lack of women MLOs at a majority of government hospitals is particularly troubling as victims of violence have to wait for hours for a check-up from an MLO who can only be found at the three major hospitals.
According to serving MLOs and civil society activists, there should be at least five female MLOs at all the nine major hospitals of the city. They include JPMC, CHK, ASH, Qatar Hospital in Orangi, Government Hospital Korangi, Lyari General Hospital, Sindh Government Hospital in Liaquatabad, Government Hospital New Karachi and Government Hospital Saudabad.
Raheema Panhwar, the regional coordinator of the Strengthening Participatory Organisation (SPO), an independent advocacy group, said that medical legal examination is a necessary process to collect and examine the evidence from survivors of gender-based violence. “Because of the lack of women MLOs and in the absence of efficient medical examination, survivors of violence may not get justice,” she said.
Interviews with officials of the health department, MLOs and civil society organisations working against gender-based violence suggest that the non-availability of women MLOs has become a severe issue which is further compounded by a Supreme Court ruling that makes it impossible for male MLOs to be of help.
In a 1996 ruling, the top court had imposed a ban on male MLOs conducting post-mortems of women to preserve the privacy and dignity of women. Only women MLOs can perform an autopsy on women. Because of the apex court’s restrictions, male MLOs cannot offer any help in the hospital even if there is a rush of medico-legal cases involving women.
To deal with the situation, in March, the Sindh Health Department assigned 46 female medical officers to work as MLOs in various government hospitals, but these were not permanent postings.
Among these, only 16 female doctors have received training from the Police Surgeon’s Office and are working. Yet, the issue of long wait times for women victims of accidents and violence in seeing an MLO has not been resolved.
“These newly-assigned female doctors are working in small hospitals whose emergency departments are not in a running position and because of this, most of the cases are still coming to the city’s major three hospitals, JPMC, ASH and CHK,” a senior male MLO told The News.
He suggested that the health department should hand over the newly-assigned MLOs to the Police Surgeon’s Office so that they can be deputed to all major hospitals.
The SPO, under a projected titled ‘Policy Advocacy and Research to Strengthen Implementation of Pro-women Legislation and Gender-based Violence Response Services in Sindh’ has been making efforts to highlight the issue through parliamentarians and civil society activists.
“We are struggling for the allocation of a sufficient number of women MLOs throughout Sindh,” Panhwar said. “The SPO intends to build the capacity of newly-appointed MLOs so they can conduct proper medico legal examination considering the standard gender-based violence guidelines.”