Police stations with help desks for women, especially those run by women, are more likely to register cases of gender-based violence, says a new study, ‘Policing in Patriarchy’, by researchers from the universities of Virginia and Oxford and the Abdul Lateef Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a global research center. 

“Women police officers make a big difference at the frontlines: this should be a major policy takeaway from the study,” said Sandip Sukhtankar, economist and the researcher who led the study. “It is also important to not just put them in clerical positions but have them on the frontlines as well.”

Women’s help desks are mandated to respond to gender crimes but they are located within regular police stations with staff trained in assisting women and supported through community outreach. This intervention has two advantages – it mainstreams the handling of gender crimes but also ensures a more informed and sensitive police response.

The other alternative, being practised across India, is to totally segregate the handling of gender violence and move it to all-women police stations. The assumption is that women complainants will feel more comfortable in this environment and that women officers here will be isolated from patriarchal norms of policing.

However, this may not be an effective strategy, says a 2020 study of all-women police stations in Haryana, Gender, Law Enforcement, and Access to Justice by Nirvikar Jassal, assistant professor at the London School of Economics (LSE). It concluded that all-women police stations did nothing to help increase the registration of gender crimes, as we detail later.

There is, however, also a resource problem with setting up entire stations or even desks run by women officers: women’s representation in the Indian police force remains dismal at 10%, especially at the higher ranks.

Why segregation does not work

Recent research (see here, and here) suggests that the total segregation of gender crime reduces the likelihood of officers in mixed-gender police stations filing such cases. It also ends up reducing the exposure of women officers to other crimes, and increases the travel cost for victims seeking redress, Jassal concluded. 

The researcher also pointed out that all-women stations too end up encouraging reconciliation between victims and abusers – this kind of “counselling” is routine in mixed-gender stations. This means a critical delay in the arrest of suspects. Survey evidence also suggested that all-women stations do not necessarily encourage positive perceptions about women officers. 

Victims of gender violence will feel free to report crimes only if the police are more sensitive in their dealings, said a 2017 study funded by the Ministry of Women and Child Development. In an advisory dated January 10, 2020, the Ministry of Home Affairs advised all states/ UTs to set up help desks for women in all police stations. 

As of January 1, 2021, 41% of police stations do not have help desks dedicated to women, said the 2021 India Justice Report.

‘Not believed, humiliated’

The J-PAL study, conducted across 180 police stations of Madhya Pradesh, argues that reforms focused on gender crimes make the police more responsive to women’s security concerns even in resource-constrained and patriarchal environments. 

The patriarchal foundation of the police system can serve to deter or block women’s legal claim by discouraging the filing of a case, the report elaborated. “Even in the egregious cases we have seen in the recent past, women who have gone to the police station have been treated horribly, not believed, and their cases have not registered,” said Sukhthankar. 

Survivors of gender-based violence attempting to file an FIR face multiple barriers, including the fear of being stigmatised and humiliated, lack of resources, perceived impunity for perpetrators, poor awareness of services or access to them, fear of retaliation and discriminatory attitudes toward victims in law enforcement settings (see here, and here). 

The J-PAL report also noted that the police, pressured by heavy workloads and authorities, discourage women from reporting crimes to maintain shiny statistics. All these factors lead to both the under-reporting and under-recording of crime and violence, said the study. 

The researchers chose Madhya Pradesh because its socio-economic indicators and gender norms are representative of much of northern India. For instance, only 1% of the women from the state’s four largest cities who had experienced violence reported it to the police, as per a study.

Improved reporting

The J-PAL study evaluated data from police stations of all kinds – those with no help desks for women, those with help desks run by women, and those run by both male and female officers. During the 11 months of the study, 1,905 domestic incident reports (DIRs) – a complaint of domestic violence filed under the Domestic Violence Act (2005) –  and 3,360 FIRs were filed in police stations with women’s help desks. 

The researchers found that the reporting of domestic violence rose dramatically when police stations set up women-run help desks. The officers at these desks are trained to deal with such cases and coordinate with state and civil society agencies, said the report.

A 14% increase was observed in the number of FIRs filed on crimes against women and a 10% increase in FIRs filed by women; and this increase was driven entirely by women-run help desks, the report noted. In the 180 stations studied, the number of FIRs increased in stations with women-run help desks in comparison to those run by mixed teams; FIRs on crimes against women increased by over a quarter (26.4%) and those filed by women rose by 18.5%.  

Male officers are more reluctant to file FIRs than domestic violence reports because as soon as the former is filed, an investigation has to be initiated. “Unlike the DIR, the FIR automatically initiates a criminal case, requiring substantial investments of police time for investigation and in court proceedings. Moreover, to file an FIR, officers must push against strong norms within the police that prioritise “protecting families” by avoiding legal proceedings, in addition to dismissive narratives about “false cases”,” the study explained.

Change in police behaviour is critical

One in every five police personnel is of the opinion that complaints of gender-based violence are false and motivated to a “very high extent”, while almost an equal number believe this to be the case to a “high extent”, as per the Status of Policing in India Report, 2019 published by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). Male and female officials differ very little on this view.

The increase in reporting in the stations is driven by changes in the police and not citizen behaviour: there were no observable changes in the number of women reporting cases but the complaints that ended up being registered increased, per the J-PAL findings. 

Also, deep-seated police attitudes about gender did not appear to shift overall. No significant change was reported in the rates at which officers described a case filed by a woman against a man as “false”. However, researchers noted that female officers trained at women’s help desks were less likely to parrot the “false case” line than those who were not. This effect did not apply to male officers.

Gender representation in police force

Women’s representation in the country’s police force is poor, with huge vacancies in reserved positions, as per the India Justice Report. The number of women police personnel falls as the rank rises in hierarchy.

Women account for just 10.5% of the country’s police force and 8.2% of the country’s police officers, as per the report. In 11 states and UTs, the share of women at officer level is 5% or less.

Tamil Nadu and Mizoram both have the highest share of women officers at 20.2%, closely followed by Uttarakhand with 18.2%. Jammu and Kashmir has the least share at 2%. Lakshadweep, which has 18 police officers, does not have any women officers in its police force.

It has taken 15 years for India to increase the share of women personnel in the police from 3.3% in 2006 to 10.5% in 2020, as per data from the India Justice Report. At this rate of increase, it will take another 33 years for India to reach the 33% representation for women in the police force nationally. 

One in four (25%) male personnel demonstrated high bias against their female colleagues, per the CHRI report. This prejudice was highly pronounced in Bihar and Karnataka (60%).

However, the J-PAL study has argued that simply increasing the number of female officers in the police force is not enough. Gender sensitisation of officers across genders is imperative to improve police responses to gender-based violence, it concluded.

  • Eisha Hussain is a multimedia reporter at Behanbox. Her work has covered issues around gender and sexuality, displaced communities from conflict zones, and protest cultures.

Girl in a jacket
Support BehanBox

We believe everyone deserves equal access to accurate news. Support from our readers enables us to keep our journalism open and free for everyone, all over the world.

Donate Now