“India does not have a uniform protocol for medical treatment and examination of survivors of sexual assault,” the US-based body said in a statement.
This, it said, made “responses ad hoc and unpredictable, and in the worst cases, degrading and counter-productive”.
This was reflected in the continued use of the so-called “finger test”, which Human Rights Watch had documented in a 2010 report.
“While conducting medical examinations, many doctors record unscientific and degrading findings, which involve noting the ‘laxity’ of the vagina or hymen,” it said.
“This was “apparently (meant) to determine whether the victims are ‘virgins’ or ‘habituated to sexual intercourse’.”
Often doctors, police and judges look for evidence of “struggle” or “injuries” especially hymenal injuries, in the medical examination report, discrediting those who do not report such injuries, it said.
“The Indian government should establish national standards and a uniform protocol for the medical treatment and collection of medical evidence in cases of sexual assault, and to eliminate the use of finger tests on sexual assault survivors,” a Human Rights Watch statement said.
There should be “dignified treatment and examination of sexual assault survivors”, the statement said.
“Dignity and accountability should underscore the police and medical responses to sexual assault throughout India.”
It pointed out that Indian civil society organisations had long called for laws on sexual assault to be reformed.
Under current criminal law, India does not have a general definition of sexual assault.
It only defines rape (penile penetration), “outraging the modesty” of women, and “insulting the modesty” of women. Indian law does not recognize the offence of marital rape.
The Human Rights Watch statement followed the death of a 23-year-old Delhi woman who was gang-raped and assaulted Dec 16.
“This murderous gang rape is a sobering reminder of the pervasive sexual violence that women and girls across India suffer,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The government needs to act now to prevent sexual assault, aggressively investigate and prosecute perpetrators, and ensure the dignified treatment of survivors.”
Human Rights Watch said there was an urgent need to reform the criminal law and procedure and to provide improved treatment of survivors to ensure justice for sexual assault victims.
The statement also said that while security forces have at times been implicated in sexual assault, the government has not taken action against them.
In May 2012, about 90 civil society bodies and individuals, including Human Rights Watch, wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seeking reforms in responses to sexual assault and greater police accountability.
The groups called on the Indian central government to constitute a high-level task force to develop a coordinated response to gender-based violence, especially sexual assault.
They also urged New Delhi to instruct state governments to monitor police handling of sexual assault reports and investigation, and hold accountable officers who mishandle their duties.
They called for funding an existing scheme to provide financial assistance for rape victims and monitor its implementation.
“The level of care – including counselling – provided to the Delhi gang-rape victim and her family demonstrates that political will can ensure support and care for victims of sexual assault,” Human Rights Watch said.
“But this only followed public outrage and demonstrations after the attack.
“Human Rights Watch has found that survivors usually find it difficult to register police complaints, and often go from one hospital to another even for a medical examination, and often report suffering humiliation at police stations and hospitals.”