The term ‘policeman’ is used overarchingly and overbearingly to refer to the police force. Women in the force are subsumed under the term; the underlying image is that of a man yielding brute force, authority, ruthlessness, strength and vigor — values upheld as the prerequisites of policing. These are qualities that have been traditionally assigned to men in a society that has stereotyped women as soft, nurturing, fragile — the so-called female physique and feminine temperament. While such gender-based prejudice has traditionally restricted women’s role in policing, the masculine undertone is also out of sync with present realities and evolving social forces that indicate women’s fitting role in the force as well as their impactful contributions in several spheres including but not limited to gender-based crimes. And yet, despite such positive indicators, what ails the patriarchal policing model of India? What do the numbers suggest and what explains the gender disparity? Moreover, how do women police officers fare within the system?
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In 2019, women comprised less than 10% of police personnel. Reportedly, only seven states — Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Sikkim — had more than 10% policewomen. In fact, there has been only a 5% increase in the number of policewomen in a decade (3.65% in 2009 to 8.98% in 2019).
In fact, since 2009, the Home Ministry has set 33% reservation of women in the police force as the target for both the central and state governments. In 2013, the Ministry of Home Affairs reaffirmed its commitment to 33% reservation and recommended each police station to have at least three women sub-inspectors and 10 women police constables to ensure well-staffed women help-desks. In 2016, the Ministry furthered this ongoing commitment to create Investigative Units for Crimes against Women (IUCAW) at police stations in “crime-prone districts across states”. The planned 200 units comprising 15 personnel each were directed to be equipped with “specialized investigators” dealing primarily with crimes against women wherein at least five of them had to be women. Despite such targeted reservation and advertisement of vacancies for women constables, states have reported quotas going unfulfilled. Several states like Rajasthan, Haryana and Assam have recorded a lack of takers for the job.
One look at the break-up of roles of women integrated into the police force would give us alarming statistics. Only 1% of policewomen in India occupy senior ranks, while over 90% of women occupy the lowest rank — that of constables. What is terrible is the fact that an overbearing majority of policewomen join the force as constables and also retire as one. Thus, while a reservation-based approach may still fuel women’s recruitment into entry-level posts, which in itself is still far away from achieving gender parity, it ends up restricting women’s potential rise and promotion to roles of leadership. This creates a deep void in the arena of gender-based crimes where women’s policing roles have been hailed by both national and international reports. Countries like South Africa, the US, Australia and Canada have about 15 to 30% representation of women in their police forces.
Further, women’s assimilation within the police force doesn’t automatically translate to their embarking on a trajectory of growth and significance, as noted by Basant Rath, a 2000 batch IPS officer of the Jammu and Kashmir cadre in an article published in the media. Case in point, the Jharkhand state police manual that said that policewomen “are not to be substituted for male police but they should be employed on duties which they alone could perform more effectively and with greater advantage than male police”. Rath notes how policewomen are trusted only to perform specified tasks, which include escorting female prisoners, duties in relation to cases of violence against women and children, helping policemen in any investigation involving interrogation or execution of warrant or in any matter concerning women generally, watch duty of female suspects and any miscellaneous duty according to ability. Overall, policewomen are viewed through a myopic lens of being capable to perform clerical and subordinate roles. So while women’s role in policing vis-à-vis crimes against women continues to be a valid reason for women’s greater participation in the police force, it has to be seen whether that ends up targeting and limiting women further to gender-specific roles. Researchers have noted how all-women police stations end up segregating women into a gender-based group, and how such an approach fails to take into account the systemic bias against women that permeates through the force.
The attrition rate of women in police, and especially at the level of constabulary, is reported to be the highest of all government jobs in the country, and this owes a lot to the discouraging and disincentivizing atmosphere, peer pressures and gender issues, as noted by Rath. This also points to how women fare in the policing workplace. A 2015 Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) study has documented the absence of toilets and other facilities and childcare support in India’s police stations. Instances of sexual harassment of policewomen by men higher in rank and within official premises are underreported but continue to haunt the Indian policing system in the galvanizing climate of #MeToo cases.
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Policewomen and gender-based crimes
In a society like India where crimes against women are further challenged by a lack of reporting fearing shame, women’s significance in the police force has been emphasized time and again to bring about gender sensitivity when gender-based crimes are reported. The normalization of violence against women by the Indian population in general is also attested by men in the system. Combine it with moral policing and victim shaming and it would not be hard to surmise why women and their families resist reporting gender-based crimes fearing being subject to stigma and trivialization.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau report 2020, there were 9,438 reported cases of stalking in 2018, which can’t be taken at face value given the syndrome of underreporting in India. The Delhi Police data shows that crimes against women in the national capital saw a 63.3% increase in the first six months of 2021.
Women in the police force can bring a gender-nuanced lens of empathy both in gender-based violence as well as cases pertaining to the Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, and combat prejudice stemming from a male-dominated culture. It has been noted that women police officers are better equipped to communicate with juvenile delinquents. “Data from 39 countries show that the presence of women police officers correlates positively with reporting of sexual assault, which confirms that recruiting women is an important component of a gender-responsive justice system,” noted Progress of the World’s Women: In Pursuit of Justice, a United Nations Women report in 2011-12.
Women and gender-sensitive policing also enhance women’s perception of safety in traditionally male-dominated public spaces. The Delhi Police’s ‘Parivartan’ program was aimed to ensure women’s safety in public spaces through an increased participation of women constables as well as gender sensitivity training through both peer and community training.
As a hyper-masculine image of the Indian police force continues to serve as an institutional barrier for women to enter and rise up in the system, it is important to dissociate the policing culture from ‘coercive force’. From women demonstrating on streets and demanding rights as part of organizations to female students protesting against the system, more women in the force would only mean greater sensitivity in handling varied gender demographics.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)