It's Important to Make India's Police Force More Welcoming for Women

A gender diverse police force will be more equitable and more approachable.

You don’t have to call yourself a feminist to understand why no police organisation in the world has been affected by the “Me Too” movement that started on social media last year to denounce sexual assault and harassment in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. India’s police organisations are no exception.

This should be an occasion to take a clear-eyed stock of the situation of women in policing in India and a right moment to ask uncomfortable questions. For a young woman job-seeker, how woman-friendly are our police forces today and how attractive is a career as a policewoman? For a woman police constable, what is the level of job satisfaction and how gender-intelligent is her job environment? For a woman police officer at a leadership position, how levelled is the occupational playground vis-à-vis her male counterparts? How common are incidents of gender discrimination and sexual harassment in our police organisations? Do India’s police have a problem like Harvey Weinstein?

Let’s take a look.

First, the good news. In 2013, the Ministry of Home Affairs reiterated the target of 33% reservation for women in the police and recommended each police station to have at least three women sub-inspectors and ten women police constables to ensure women help-desks are staffed at all times.

In 2016, the ministry proposed creating Investigative Units for Crimes against Women (IUCAW) at police stations in crime-prone districts across states. The planned 200 units comprising 15 personnel each will be equipped with specialised investigators dealing primarily with crimes against women and at least five of them will be women.

Next, the not-so-good news. Despite reservation and advertising of vacancies for women constables in Andhra Pradesh between 2005-2010, quotas went unfilled. The intake of women police in Rajasthan, Haryana and Assam did not match the number of women in the employable category. In some states, there are simply not enough takers for the job.

Next, the bad news. The Jharkhand state police manual says that women police “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”. Women police are only to perform specified tasks, which include escorting female prisoners, duties in relation to cases of violence against women and children, helping men police 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. The language clearly reflects a subordinate role being assigned to women police.

Now, the ugly news. From Kolhapur, Jhansi, Delhi and Bhopal.

Kolhapur, Maharashtra, April 2011. At least 11 women recruit constables alleged that police instructors had sexually exploited them when they were undergoing training at Kolhapur’s police training school. The scandal came to light when a routine medical test of the women police recruits revealed that two of them were pregnant.

Also read: How Violence Against Women in India Can Be Stopped by Training Police Officers

Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, October 2015. Etawah police registered a First Information Report (FIR) against two police constables and an unidentified police driver under sections of rape and criminal intimidation of the Indian Penal Code. The survivor, a lady police constable, alleged in her complaint that she, along with another woman colleague, had come to Jhansi as part of extra force to be deployed at the Jal Vihar Mela in Mauranipur.

While she and her colleague were returning to Jhansi, they were allegedly lured by the accused policemen who offered to give them a lift in their car. Both of them got into the car, but the driver took them to a desolated place where all the three accused took turns to rape her. She registered a complaint on the emergency number. The police took five days to register the FIR. Not before she was summoned by Ashutosh Pandey, IG Kanpur zone.

Delhi, September 2016. As many as 24 policewomen accused an inspector-level officer in the Delhi police of sexual harassment at the workplace. The women claimed they continued to face harassment for four months even after the complaint was forwarded to the departmental inquiry cell. Some of them were made to chase dogs out of the office premises. They also approached the chief secretary, but an inquiry was initiated only when the complaints were made public after five months.

Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, November 2017. An additional superintendent of police (ASP) of the Madhya Pradesh police was arrested for assaulting a subordinate female police constable. She alleged that the ASP had been behaving inappropriately with her for the past three months.

Alia Allana’s report on the abuse and systemic marginalisation of policewomen in India deserves a close reading by India’s policy makers and police leaders. “When a policewoman musters the courage to report harassment or assault, nothing comes of it. In at least five cases that Fountain Ink tracked – three in Maharashtra, one in Odisha and one in UP – the matter was hushed up or the accounts of victims were discredited. Cases are often finished off at the level of a departmental inquiry; sometimes a short suspension may be in order,” she wrote.

Moving past denial

Denial is an extremely effective drug. It smothers the senses of generations of educated people that claim to despise sexual predators and yet do absolutely nothing to dislodge them from the conveyor belt that takes them to the positions of authority and influence.

Our police leaders, the members of the Indian Police Service (IPS), need to find time, motivation and resources to focus on the situation of women in policing. They need to understand the value of diversity in policing in a democracy, appreciate the dimensions of diversity deficit in the police architecture with respect to gender and take measures to set it right. Being in denial and obsessed with the trade union variety of loyalty to the organisations they belong to won’t help them initiate an informed debate around improving the gender balance within the police. Efforts to address gender discrimination and give a push to gender equity within the police forces will be the harbinger for broader police reforms in policing that can comply with the aspirations and expectations of a developing democratic republic like ours.

Policewomen and a paramilitary soldier stand guard on a closed road leading to Sunariya Jail in Rohtak in the northern state of Haryana, India, August 28, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Policewomen and a paramilitary soldier stand guard. Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi/Files

In a democracy, the legitimacy of the police as an institution depends on being representative of the diversity of the country’s people. To command confidence, trust and respect of the public, a police unit must be reflective of the community it serves. Female police officers bring to the table skills, experiences and perspectives that are vastly different from those of their male counterparts.

Across our country, because of a culture of diffidence that confuses assertiveness of its daughters with aggression, women are extremely hesitant to approach outsiders with their concerns, even in extreme circumstances involving physical and emotional security, let alone approach an entity as intimidating as a police force. As a result, their access to justice is negatively affected by a lack of women to whom they can spell out their grievances. Higher representation and visible presence at various levels ensures more approachability and, therefore, greater access to a vital service where women’s experiences and realities can be adequately appreciated and addressed. More women in the force will help repair the deficit in equality of opportunity to work, as well as the deficit in access to justice that women face.

Acknowledging the deficits

Any informed debate on the situation of women in policing in India must start with an acknowledgement of the twin deficits of diversity and design in our police organisations.

The diversity deficit refers to the fact that the actual strength of women police personnel is 7.1% across India, while the percentage of women personnel in the Central Armed Police Forces is 2.36%. Less than 1% of policewomen in India occupy senior ranks and almost 90% of them serve as constables. Women officers are routinely relegated to desk jobs or tasks that shield them from frontline policing. Such assignments away from core law-enforcement duties are an impediment to career advancement.

Most of our women police constables enter at the lowest ranks, and eventually retire at the same rank. Only a few of them get up to three promotions in a career span of 35 years. Most of them are denied active policing roles, except for bandobast – large-scale deployment for crowd control and VIP movement – and spend their careers doing tasks the male-dominated force deems fit for them. This includes writing reports, housekeeping at police stations and the houses of senior officers, and other such duties. Even in Kerala, often held as one of the more progressive states for police reform, not many police stations are headed by lady officers.

Also by Rath: It’s Time We Appreciate Our Police Constables and Their Honest Day’s Work

Design deficit has two components. At the technological-material level, it refers to the fact that most of the police stations in India don’t have separate toilets for women police constables. 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.

At the organisational-social psychological level, it refers to the lack of structural design at the stage of recruitment that has made things difficult for our policewomen. In most states, there is no common cadre for male and female police recruitment and this had a knock-on effect on promotions.

The concept of design deficit can explain what is wrong with the idea of all women police station. The 2015 CHRI study was categorical about the need to examine policies like the creation of all-women police stations for duplication, feasibility and cost benefit. The 2015 CHRI report has made it clear that there are a host of basic operational and functional problems confronting women on duty that remain unaddressed and that these problems need to be addressed before rushing to measures which may not even be realistic to achieve.

All-women police stations end up segregating women into a separate group without addressing the main male bias of our police organisations. Women officers, apart from being able to do the job as effectively and efficiently as men, bring additional skills and traits to, and improve the image of and public confidence in, the police as a whole.

The traditional but increasingly outdated view of policing as “man’s work” is built on a patriarchal model of policing that views the work as physical, authoritative, forceful, dangerous, and hence inherently unsuitable to the so-called female physique and temperament. These powerful stereotypes persist, despite evidence to the contrary that strongly indicates not just the suitability of women to policing, but also the positive contribution they make

In a 1988 article in the Journal of Police Science and Administration, researcher Joseph Balkin reviewed American and international research spanning 14 years on the involvement of women in police work. He found uniformly that women not only perform the job of policing effectively, but are better able to defuse potentially violent situations: “Policemen see police work as involving control through authority,” he wrote, “while policewomen see it as a public service.”

There is another aspect of this gender diversity deficit. In a male-dominated profession like law enforcement, some policewomen have had to become what gender experts Michael Gurian and Barbara Annis call “the third sex.” As a result of gender-based stereotyping, they need to be more ‘male’ in their leadership traits than their male counterparts. This can eventually lead to frustration and resentment in policewomen. We do need to consider that women and men are different, whether because of nature or nurture, and that those differences must be acknowledged in order to level the playing field. This is analogous to the failure of “colour-blind” approaches to combating racism. Pretending that we are all the same, or rather that we are all just like white men, ignores the real problems faced in creating true diversity.

It is not a coincidence that the attrition rate of women in police, and especially at the level of constabulary, is the highest of all the government jobs in the country. This is obviously due to the discouraging and disincentivising atmosphere, peer pressures and gender issues.

India’s law enforcement workplace needs to be gender intelligent. And our policy makers and police leaders must understand that policewomen are not policemen with breasts.

Basant Rath is 2000 batch IPS officer who belongs to the Jammu and Kashmir cadre. Views expressed are personal.