Women officers must be on front lines of policing
Dedicated women’s help desks in Madhya Pradesh were helpful in gender-responsive policing and fighting India’s culture of impunity surrounding crimes against women. This is a big step forward
Two years into the pandemic, a global crisis of violence against women and girls has gripped headlines worldwide. India is no exception. A recent analysis of national crime records data suggests a woman dies every hour due to domestic or “dowry-related” disputes, while another two are raped. Another recent study reports that 40% of Indian women experience intimate partner or familial abuse in their lifetimes. Yet, the vast majority of crimes against women go unrecorded. A recent report, for example, estimated a full 99% of rapes are not reported to the police. Even where women approach the police, officers resist registering their complaints formally. The police are often dismissive, accusing women of lodging “false cases,” or urging complainants to “compromise”. This hesitancy reflects patriarchal norms within police forces staffed largely by men (less than 12% are women), and capacity and resource constraints in overburdened local stations.
While case registration is one link in a long and uncertain chain to security and justice, it is a critical one; without it, further legal action is not possible, and access to the investigation, the courts, protective orders, and social services are denied. Yet, many within the police — as well as among politicians, pundits, and the press — portray increases in case registration as evidence of rising crime or police inaction, rather than a sign of more responsive policing or women’s growing awareness of their rights. The narrative against case registration is problematic, and may be harmful, creating perverse incentives.
Over the last three years, however, a reform in Madhya Pradesh (MP), offers some hope. Supported by the state police, the Urgent Relief and Just Action (URJA) initiative has established Women’s Help Desks (WHDs) in local police stations. These desks are dedicated spaces for women, staffed by officers trained to support victims and mandated to register women’s cases. They are supported by routine monitoring and community outreach and represent one of the most comprehensive efforts in India to mainstream gender-responsive policing into the work of local stations, rather than separating women’s cases within women-only stations (which are few and far between).
We studied the URJA initiative, carrying out a randomised evaluation of the WHDs across 180 police stations serving 23 million people in 12 districts, assigning them to three groups: The first with established WHDs; the second with established WHDs, but with a female officer assigned to run it; and the third with no intervention, serving as a “control” or comparison group. We collected administrative data on the numbers and types of cases filed across all these stations, and survey data from interviews with officers, visitors to police stations, and citizens living in station catchment areas.
The results, just published in Science, are encouraging. Across all stations with WHDs, civil cases of domestic violence registered via Domestic Incident Reports (DIRs) rose from practically zero to an average of 1.5 cases monthly. While still small in number, the percentage increase is enormous (>1,500%), reflecting 1,905 additional DIRs over the 11 months of our study (making MP a leader in registration). Filing a DIR was unfamiliar to most police personnel before the intervention, so simply instructing officers on the law and procedure had a significant effect. Registration of criminal cases, the bread and butter of policing, also increased in stations with WHDs, reflected in an additional 3,360 First Information Reports (FIRs) in cases of crime against women (an increase of 14% over stations without help desks).
These increases in case registration do not reflect any underlying change in crime rates (as documented in our citizen survey), and nor are they the result of more women visiting police stations (as observed via CCTV footage). Instead, they reflect a change in police behaviour – most notably among female officers. Filing an FIR is a heavy lift for the police; it initiates criminal proceedings, requiring substantial investments of time for investigation, and pushes against cultural norms that seek to minimise legal cases in order “protect families,” as well as political pressure to lower recorded crime rates. Female officers demonstrated a greater commitment to overcome these barriers. FIRs rose significantly where the WHDs were run by women. Female officers were also particularly responsive to WHD training, and were the only ones to exhibit a change in attitudes.
To be sure, much more must be done. The URJA initiative did not, in the timeframe of our study, yield a significant change in the number of arrests, nor was there any overall reduction in the rates of gender-based violence. The court system is slow and conviction rates low. In addition, women who opt to pursue civil cases may require follow-up support, such as economic relief and social services.
Nonetheless, case registration through the WHDs represents a crucial step in combating India’s culture of impunity surrounding crimes against women. The MP Police has recently scaled up the URJA intervention to 700 stations, serving most of the state. As India recruits more women into the police (many states now require 30% of recruits be women), the URJA experience suggests that female officers must be on the front lines, not hidden in office work, but supported and valued for their essential service.
Sandip Sukhtankar and Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner are associate professors with the University of Virginia. Akshay Mangla is an associate professor at University of Oxford
The views expressed are personal
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