Women in khaki deserve more than tokenism

Women in khaki deserve more than tokenism

There is need for a change in the deep-seated prejudice against women in the police force, beginning with more women-friendly policies

An all-women contingent of J & K Police during full dress rehearsal for the Republic Day function, at Sher-e-Kashmir Stadium in Srinagar. Credit: PTI Photo

Every day, Kusuma (name changed), a 26-year-old traffic constable in Bengaluru, tries not to drink water when at work as she has a hard time finding a washroom. The possibility of having to work beyond the 'regular' hours (12 to 13 hours a day) has forced a 36-year-old constable to leave her seven-year-old son at her maternal house 250 km away. Such tough decisions and compromises are part of every policewoman's life. However, despite their strong will and dedication, they continue to face bias at the workplace, from their colleagues and the public and suffer emotional dilemmas. 

There is consensus that women bring a human face to policing, but this is not reflected in any stage - from recruitment to assignments.

In 2015, the Ministry of Home Affairs approved a request to increase the strength of women in police to 33% and issued a circular to states but states have been slow to follow.

In February this year, the Karnataka government announced an increase in the reservation for women in the police force from 20% to 25%. The target is ambitious but chances of hitting it in the near future seem slim – currently women police account for just 7.73% (6,881 out of 89,009) of the police force in the state.

The national figure is only slightly better. The Bureau of Police Research and Development’s (BPRD) 'Data on Police Organisations 2019' shows that women account for 1.85 lakh (8.98%) of the 20.67 lakh-strong police forces across the country.

The 'State of Policing in India Report' in 2019 by Common Cause, an NGO, and Lokniti-CSDS indicated that women police were more likely to be asked to perform in-house tasks than men, who were assigned more on-field duties. At least half the women (48%) reported not getting any weekly off. 

They spend around 13 hours a day at the workplace alone, surveys say.

"We must provide a shift system, also a weekly off and childcare support services if we want children of families not to suffer," says Puducherry Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi, the country's first woman IPS officer. 

Uma Bharathi (name changed), a 34-year-old head constable, works with seven other women in a Bengaluru police station. Unfortunately, her station does not have a separate washroom for men and women. “Especially during my menstrual cycle, I don’t feel like using the facilities,” she says.

Bharathi is not alone in her discomfort. One out of five policewomen in Karnataka reported that they did not have separate washrooms in the stations.

The plight of policewomen on the field is more alarming, as they have to hunt for hours to find a place to relieve themselves.

Underrepresented in upper ranks 

A majority of women also find it hard to make their way up the ranks. Of the 6,881 women police personnel in Karnataka, at least 90% are constables, compared to 65% of their male counterparts. 

The lack of women in higher ranks keeps the policewomen from seeking weekly off or basic workplace facilities. Nethra Devi (name changed), a 44-year-old constable, cannot bring herself to ask for her weekly offs from superior officers for fear of familial obligations being perceived as trivial. “I have children and sometimes someone in the family has to help them with their studies,” she says. 

Women also find it difficult to get space in elite squads like the anti-terror wing, crime branch and special branch.

The latest data from January 2019 showed that of the 49,445 personnel assigned to these three squads across the country just over 10% were women.

Across India, women form just 2.95% of the Central Armed Police Forces. And Karnataka is one of the few states where women find no place in the State Armed Police.

This reiterates the findings of a survey conducted during the National Conference of Women in Police in 2014 when senior women police officials minced no words in saying that they were denied important posting just because of their gender. The BPRD has also repeatedly asserted this in its reports on police data.

“There is a tendency to engage women police only in situations like security checks and other specialised duties relating to women, but unless they are assigned mainstream duties in the police stations, there would not be adequate impact on the community,” the BPRD has said.

Even with extraordinary work on record, bias is apparent. One of the glaring examples was that of Bedi, who was overlooked for the post of Delhi Police Commissioner in 2007. 

When asked if she thought women faced discrimination, Bedi said, “Yes they do. Sometimes, in view of shared responsibilities and pressure on their energy and time. They might also face early motherhood challenges and a lack of adequate support systems within the department. Discrimination is also seen at the higher positions in view of personal equations and administrative reasons. But this exists among men too.”

Attitude among policemen

To top it all, there is the attitude of fellow officers from the force. The 2019 State of Policing Report mentions that at least 25% of policemen were biased towards women in the force; at 44% Karnataka was one of six states where policemen were found to hold deeply prejudicial views against women. 

The Karnataka Home Secretary D Roopa Moudgil, an IPS officer, explains the lack of consensus in the department on recruiting more women personnel.

She talks about people who argue against recruiting too many women because they think police work is usually a rough and tough job and that the work timings may not suit them, as sometimes there would be a need to go in for raids and bandobast at odd times. “Then there are people who say that the force is already depleted, there are so many vacancies and women will go on maternity leave, childcare leave etc. There is also an argument that women prefer ‘soft’ jobs, that not all women are ready for field jobs,” she said, spelling out the arguments listed when one argues for increased women participation.

“Given that dacoities, robberies and such traditional crimes are replaced in modern times by more sophisticated cybercrimes, a keen interest in investigation will help the police. Which I am sure women will be well-suited for,” Roopa added.

Integral to the force

Studies say that employing more women will only make the force more accessible to the public.

Crimes against women are on the rise. However, apart from being approachable and more sensitive to vulnerable women and children, they are also better at holding perpetrators of domestic violence accountable.

Women are also found to employ a different method of policing, one that relies on diffusing tensions rather than on aggression, making them integral assets rather than liabilities.

Dwarakanath C S, an advocate who frequently deals with police and women victims, said, “Close to 50% of the population consists of women. Underrepresentation makes the police unapproachable because the force already has a reputation for being harsh, even in sensitive cases of sexual harassment,” he said.

The study by Common Cause mentions that one in five police personnel believes that reports of gender-based violence can be false or motivated. This belief can be dangerous when police personnel rely on their instincts and do not file cases when violence is reported.

As Roopa says, “The force needs to become more empathetic. Women bring sympathy, empathy, care, and concern to the table more than men do. That is why if we want to have a more humane, more people-friendly police, women are needed.”

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