The initiative on women police stations in Haryana can be applauded on two fronts. One, focused police services for women gives the message that police aim to be accountable for safeguarding women. Second, the state's commitment to women's rights is not limited to single interventions but addressing a range of issues, including safety, missing girl child numbers, social insurance to improving health and education. These, however, only scratch the surface. After all, the policy makers cannot be so naive as to believe the opening of women police stations will lead to decrease in crimes against women. The provision of services cannot on its own change the social positioning or overturn a history of subjugation.
Women police stations in districts and then subsequently towns, can improve women reporting abuse and promote security with three provisos in place:
Integrate gender services in mainstream policing
Women in India are hesitant to cross the threshold of police stations. These are viewed as criminal spaces that 'women from good homes do not enter'. Studies show that only eight per cent of violence against women gets reported.
Globally, anonymity and a friendly ambience give women confidence to report violence that is seen as private, intimate or shameful. However, a danger with women police stations - the first of which opened in São Paulo in 1985 as part of Brazil's special units - is that gender-based violence (GBV) gets recognised and treated exclusively as a women concern rather than part and parcel of police services. That women are not the only victims of GBV is something that law providers in Haryana are too aware of. In 2007, a couple 'Manoj and Babli' was murdered for same-gotra marriage. Police now provide a shelter scheme for runaway couples. In fact about 9 per cent of GBV victims in India are men. Nowadays, it is not only daughter-in-laws, but also mother-in-laws and father-in-laws who are facing threats from sons and daughters-in-law, with property disputes rampant. The point here is that as men and families are involved as victims and assaulters, they would be visiting the 'women police stations'. Segregating GBV sites as a support is welcome in an environment insensitive to gender violence. Trained staff (largely women) of police, counsellors, health workers and NGO along with medical facilities, hotlines and referral rooms will encourage women to seek help and report crimes. However, gender as a perspective of sensitive policing needs to be integrated with all regular functioning of police.
Linking justice services with safety and prevention
Gender safety needs to be addressed at three levels by the police. First, police stations need to be service-oriented rather than enforcement or punishment-oriented, providing a one-stop service to gender victims. Either in-house or through networking with other departments/NGOs, all victim services such as medical, counselling, legal, access to fast-track courts, shelter must be provided through this channel. Second, police needs to collaborate with social institutions (schools, colleges, offices, market committees, local bodies, bus stations etc.) to provide safety measures to reduce crime. These to have a gender units with guidelines on acceptable conduct, legal rights and recourse, sexual harassment committees with naming and shaming offenders, that are liaised with the beat system for hot-spot patrolling and regular monitoring.
Third, prevention of GBV by challenging conditions that allow the occurrence of abuse. Crime is enacted by individuals but it is the social norms, values and practices that license transgressions. Physically threatening a wife is taken as part of relational adjustments, mistreating parents ignored as a private matter, dowry demands part of marriage negotiations, sexual teasing an appreciation of beauty. But these are all punishable acts. Citizens need to understand various forms of GBV, most of which may not be brutal or visible as abuse.
Involving informal justice systems
As many of 62 % of women reporting crime do so through support groups. "We feel safer going to report a crime with our caste representatives," they say. While panchayats are involved by police in dispute resolution, their role remains case based and many a time gender insensitive. Groups such as the khaps have the community's confidence, and also settle disputes - brokering in dowry harassment, reprimanding social nuisances and can bridge peoples trust with police.
Equip these groups to be part of justice delivery collaborations, while engaging with them to make gender rights integral to social relationships. The challenge is to negotiate identity based claims for a way of life while promoting individual rights.
The women police stations are useful as a site to report gender crimes but gender responsiveness needs to be an integral part of holistic policing to promote gender safety.
(The writer is director, women studies at Institute of Development and Communication at Chandigarh. Views expressed are personal)