By Taru Bahl
Delhi (WFS) – Aruna Bahuguna is not a woman to be trifled with. Apart from being the first female chief of the prestigious National Police Academy in Hyderabad, where she oversees the training of future police leaders, she has held several important posts and been conferred with state honours, including the Indian Police Medal for Meritorious Service and the President’s Police Medal for Distinguished Service.
She may have truly built a truly remarkable career but Bahuguna clearly recalls how in the early years she, too, had hit the same roadblocks her fellow female officers have to deal with even today.
“Three decades ago, when I had first approached my superior for maternity leave it was with great reluctance that he had given his consent.
Then when I went back to him three years later to request for permission to care for my second born, he remarked not too pleasantly: ‘Again!’”
This was when Bahuguna had an impeccable service record and was known for not taking unnecessary leaves of absence.
Clearly, whereas women have stormed several male bastions one that continues to remain unbreachable is the highly patriarchal and hierarchical police force.
Deep-rooted regressive mindsets and highly discriminatory behaviour combined with policy changes that remain mostly on paper not only prevent women from joining the police but also prevent them from rising to the top if they do opt for it.
As they try hard to strike a balance between their responsibilities on the domestic front and professional commitments, feelings of inadequacy punctuated with large doses of guilt often become a part of life.
In fact, the issue of maternity is only a small part of the larger gender bias that exists in the force, not just in India but across the Subcontinent, limiting the presence of women in policing and relegating them to “softer duties” like escorting female prisoners and juveniles or talking care of administrative work.
These are just some of the insights shared in the recently released report, ‘Rough Roads to Equality’, a first-of-its-kind study conducted in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Maldives by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).
In India, the total percentage of women in police stands at 6.11 per cent, with the majority – 81.36 per cent – confined to the constabulary.
States, too, vary in their representation. For instance, Chandigarh has the highest number of women in uniform – at 14.16 per cent – while the northeastern states fare extremely poorly – Assam has just 0.93 per cent women in the state police.
Kanwaljit Deol, former Joint Commissioner, Delhi Police (Vigilance), and Director General (Investigation), National Human Rights Commission, attributes this skewed representation largely to a recruitment policy that has been absolutely restrictive and unimaginative.
“Setting a 33 per cent reservation is not enough. The top police leadership is convinced that having more women join the ranks is a problematic thing. So, the ‘solution’ that has been worked out is to keep the numbers low and confine them to stereotyped roles.
The social burden of having children and assuming domestic responsibilities serves as double jeopardy. At home, the women suffer from guilt and pressure and at work they have to contend with attitudes that are largely dismissive of their abilities.”
Due to this prevalent negative outlook policewomen broadly cope with the situation in three ways. They either become submissive, accepting whatever treatment is doled out to them, or they protest and fight their way through the system, or they adopt a very masculine behaviour, like being forceful, aggressive and domineering, so that they are considered one of the boys.
“But none of them are really able to do justice to the kind of contribution they can really make,”
The traditional, yet increasingly outdated, view of policing being a man’s job is based on a model that views the work as physical, authoritative, forceful, dangerous and hence inherently unsuitable to the female physique and disposition.
These powerful stereotypes persist, despite evidence to the contrary, which strongly establishes not just the suitability of women in the force but also the positive contributions they make. Fact is that they not only possess skills and qualities that set them apart from their male colleagues – like patience, empathy and devotion to duty – but they can also vastly contribute to improving the grossly negative public image of the force.
Indeed, the CHRI report reiterates that
“inclusion of women in policing and mainstreaming them not just in police force but community, along with addressing institutional impediments will hold the key to a more compassionate and well represented police force”.
Studies around women in police are few and far between particularly in the South Asian region, though research done elsewhere shows that women officers generally undertake a style of policing that relies less on physical force and more on communication skills, diffusing potentially violent situations.
They are, therefore, much less likely to be involved in occurrence of police brutality and much more likely to effectively respond to police calls regarding violence against women. And with communities demanding more contact with police in enforcement related matters, such as interaction with youth, elderly crime prevention and simply officer presence in the neighbourhood, there clearly is a major chunk of the work that women can do effectively.
Gender based violence has quite plainly emerged as the crime of present times. One-in-three women around the world faces violence in her lifetime and she needs to know that she can walk into her nearest police station and be assured of a sympathetic ear and, most importantly, justice.
It’s the women officers who can help the state deliver on the promise of addressing and promoting women’s safety. Maja Daruwala, Director, CHRI Delhi, feels,
“The perception that women are powerless must change. The moment there are 10,000 women police officers in the country, it will transform automatically.
When you walk into a police station and see as many women police officers and constables as men, attitudes will change. When male policemen will work with their female counterparts and share their different roles, biases will melt and they will be seen as part of a police force that does not segregate on basis of gender.”
Over the last few years, the central government has been urging the states to raise the number of women in their police forces.
In 2013, guidelines to include at least 30 per cent women in police ranks were issued. According to Kirin Rijiju, Minister of State for Home Affairs,
“Though police is a state subject, government advisories are issued to state governments. It is implementation that has been inconsistent.
Recommendations in the past have been made and some of these have been enforced but their sustainability and effectiveness remain questionable.”
For example, decisions like giving women a greater role in crime investigation, assigning them same duties as male officers, recruiting larger numbers in ranks of Assistant Sub Inspectors and Sub Inspectors, creating a women and child desk and at least four women posted in each police station have hardly been implemented.
If there is a time for challenging the status quo it is now. But it can only happen if there is political will, genuine institutional reform and a conscious effort to go beyond mere token gestures in the name of equality.