One in three women and girls worldwide experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, most frequently by an intimate partner. But in in Fiji, according to the UN, that figure rises to two in three, or 64.1 percent, the second highest rate in the world.
UNDP is working with the European Union to enable sexual assault survivors to seek justice and the Medical Services Pacific (MSP) clinic in Suva is a haven of safety and protection for traumatized victims.
“Usually patients or victims coming from the sexual offenses unit of the police,” says Dr Elvira Ongbit. “They come to MSP for examination because we look after patients right away.”
Before they undergo a medical examination, women first meet with a counsellor in a confidential session.
“Sometimes when the patients come, they are still in a traumatic state where they feel that they can’t trust anyone,” says Jacinta Robert. “So that’s my duty as a counsellor to create that safe environment, warm environment.”
While the number of sexual assault cases reported to the police and brought to court are increasing, for rape survivors the legal procedure remains a hurdle. Medical practitioners at general hospitals are not often trained to deal with rape, or to collect evidence in the way that’s legally acceptable, keep and organize the records, maintain privacy and confidentiality, and communicate with survivors in a way that does not traumatize them further.
With the counsellor present, Dr Ongbit and conducts a full forensic medical examination and ensures that all procedures and documentation complies with legal norms that will help her patient when they take her case to court.
“I always emphasize that the Fiji Medical Examination form is a public document, so it is owned by the Fiji government so everything that has to be written here should be the truth because this will be needed later on in court,” she says. “The outcome of the court proceedings, whether conviction or acquittal, the medical findings have a big weight. So, usually the prosecutors rely more on my medical findings.”
Medical Services Pacific is a partner of the Fiji Access to Justice Project, implemented by UNDP and funded by the European Union. It provides grants to organizations to help them work more effectively with the justice system, particularly as it affects sexual assault survivors and people living with disabilities. The project supports justice for impoverished and vulnerable groups by empowering people to pursue their legal rights, as well as strengthening key justice institutions and civil society.
It has made a real difference in hundreds of lives and Dr Ongbit takes pride in her work and her success. She says since 2012 she has treated and supported almost 900 sexual assault victims.
“I am just so happy that there are a lot of convictions whenever I attend court,” she says.