An institutional response to rising crimes against women is urgently needed if India hopes to reverse the alarming drop in their workforce participation — from 33.7 per cent in 1991 to 20.8 per cent in 2018.
When women consider safety, it is not only infrastructure issues that reign on the top of their minds, but also police and policing. Lack of police/security was the reason given by 68 per cent of respondents surveyed in Gwalior, Bhopal, and Jodhpur for feeling unsafe. This response was more common than poor lighting, empty public transport, and lack of toilets/poor infrastructure. Likewise, lack of visible police presence in Mumbai was associated with the perception of danger by women, and in a study recently done by Janaagraha in Mysuru and Hubli-Dharwad, police presence is rated as more or as important as well-lit streets and good-quality roads. At the same time, visible security offered by police/private security guards is one of the lowest-scoring parameters in many city audits on safety, for example in Bengaluru, Gurugram, and Mumbai.
Policing and safer cities for women
With rising crimes against women in India, it is mostly well understood that there is a grave need for improved women’s safety in urban spaces. It will improve women’s ability to participate in political and community life, not to mention in the labour force, where, according to the World Bank, female participation in India has fallen from 33.7 per cent in 1991 to 20.8 per cent in 2018. But if we really want to enhance safety, institutions need to do far more to include, listen to, and respond to women.
India is starting to make headway with a range of reservations for women in the government. Mumbai recently became the first Indian city to have a gender-specific focus in its development plan.
It is fundamental that we consider women’s representation and participation in cities, and urban infrastructure planning at the intersection of police services as we strive towards safer cities for women. For this to happen we need to, first, build trust between citizens, particularly women and the police. Second, we need to increase the participation of women in local communities in aspects of safety, security, and policing. Third, we must increase the representation of women in the police force. Platforms like community policing can form a fundamental part of this much-needed institutional response as outlined in one aspect of the 3D Program’s convergent framework for addressing violence against women and girls, as well as the community policing guidelines by UN Women.
Trust between citizens and police
Janaagraha’s work in Karnataka’s Mysuru and Hubli-Dharwad suggests that women have lower levels of trust in the police than men. Both men and women are not very likely to call the police as the first port of call when faced with a security threat (less than 16 per cent in Mysuru and less than 35 per cent in Hubli-Dharwad for both men and women). However, for women in Mysuru, this was less than 8 per cent compared to less than 16 per cent for men. While it was more equal in Hubli-Dharwad, women there are less likely than men to trust the police to arrive in a timely fashion when called, and are less likely to believe that they would be treated fairly. This trend was echoed by women in Mysuru. Supporting this, early indications from Janaagraha’s on-going research project with Brown University show that citizens across seven cities are unlikely to have reached out to the police for help in the last five years; between 4-16 per cent of citizens, depending on the city. Moreover, in many cities (Ahmedabad, Bhavnagar, Kochi, and Hyderabad) women are less likely to have reached out to the police than men.
Our data further suggests that while they are important, women do not always look to the police as a source of safety in the same way men do. For example, in Mysuru, men are proportionally more likely than women to indicate that a high police presence on the streets makes them feel safe (63 per cent of men compared to 53 per cent of women). This pattern is mirrored in Hubli-Dharwad, though there is less difference between men and women in their perceptions. Furthermore, in both cities, access to emergency numbers for the police and an assured quick response is also favoured by men more than women as a source of safety.
Increased participation of women in local communities
We need to empower women in their local communities to participate in dialogues around their safety, security, and the role of policing in this. It is essential for citizens and the police to become acquainted with each other, share information, concerns, understand processes, barriers, and furthermore, see tangible actions addressing these. Our research suggests that citizens would value these actions. Over 90 per cent of citizens in Hubli-Dharwad and over 50 per cent in Mysuru indicated that this would help make them feel safe.
Indeed, there is much to suggest that communication needs improving. While the Women’s Safety Division was set up in 2018 and launched a series of initiatives, many citizens are still unaware of it — for example, 69 per cent of Mysuru’s citizens don’t know about it. In Hubli-Dharwad, while more citizens have heard of it, a far greater proportion of women (31 per cent), who the division is aimed towards, compared to men (10 per cent) are unaware of it. The latter trend in Hubli-Dharwad, of men being more informed than women, also holds true for the government’s Emergency Response Support System (ERSS), and the Safe City project, which is specifically for women. Women are also less likely than men to know the emergency number for the police. Astonishingly, in Mysuru, 42 per cent of women indicated that they don’t know this number (compared to 31 per cent of men). Additionally, women, especially in Hubli-Dharwad, are proportionally less likely to be familiar with procedural aspects of policing such as filing a complaint or an FIR.
In instituting such engagements between citizens and the police, we need to ensure that the police force mirrors the community it serves, particularly with regards to women. Else, there is a risk of reinforcing gender stereotypes and other issues. This means we need a systematic and full integration of women into the police force. Something which is not, in any way, the current status quo in India.
Women in the police force
There is growing evidence that increasing women in the police force has positive repercussions on gender-sensitive policing and building relationships with citizens, especially women. A great example of this is the Parivartan programme, an initiative undertaken by the Delhi Police to ensure women’s safety. Introducing women constables, conducting gender sensitivity training, as well as community engagements on the topic led to greater sensitivity and responsiveness to grievances brought to the police.
In 2009, Indian Union Territories were given a mandate for 33 per cent reservation for women in the police force by the home ministry, which also advised India’s now-29 states to pursue legislative action on this issue. Yet, 11 years later, we’re far from even setting the required benchmark, let alone having women in these positions. Apart from the Union Territories, only nine states have adopted 33 per cent reservation, five states 30 per cent, Bihar 38 per cent and five states below 30 per cent. Nine states are yet to set targets. Despite a steady increase in women in the police force from 1.18 per cent in 1991, the overall strength of women in India’s police force was still only at 8.98 per cent in 2019, according to the Bureau of Police Research & Development. Furthermore, a break-up of roles shows most of these women are in the constabulary. In fact, just 1 per cent of policewomen in India occupy senior ranks. Over 90 per cent of women are constables, the lowest-possible rank. And more disconcertingly, this is the position they enter the force in and also eventually retire from.
The critical barriers to women joining the police force and their career progression include the masculinisation of policing, inequitable role allocation within the police, and women being given mostly ‘in-door’ tasks, like being asked to cook. Additionally, infrastructure and work environment are also critical barriers.
Community policing (CP) is a means by which participation and engagement of women in aspects of safety and security can be fostered, and, in turn, build trust between them and police. It is a philosophy of policing that promotes systematic engagement between police and citizens in a community, at a hyper-local level to share knowledge, build trust, and work towards safety and security in the area. Our research suggests that citizens would value such increased interactions with the police. Women would value being able to reach out to a citizen intermediary — a critical component in a CP programme —who can help them navigate and engage with the police if needed (67 per cent in Hubli-Dharwad and 56 per cent in Mysuru).
In 2003, the Bureau of Police Research and Development recommended a model for community policing for India, and such initiatives have expanded into cities such as Mumbai, Kolkata, Gurugram, with the more well-known Janamaithri Suraksha Padhathi initiative in Kerala, and more recently in Bengaluru. Evaluations of these initiatives have been largely positive. There are grounds to suggest that community policing should be adopted more widely, and include focused attention on engagements with women. It is interesting to note that gender diversity in the police force is a strong predictor for the adoption of community policing, and highlights the intersecting nature of the need for women in the police force, trust-building, and community engagement.
Building greater trust between citizens, especially women and the police, will facilitate the ability of citizens to put their faith in the police as a source of safety and security. This will bring help bring more positive security and safety perceptions, thereby facilitating greater access for women in India’s urban spaces.
The author heads the Research & Insights team at Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, based in Bengaluru.