This article is part of a special series: Safety of women in Indian cities
With inputs from Shuriah Niazi, Sri Krishna, J Jahanvi and Raj Machhan
Reliable, useful journalism needs your support.
Over 600 readers have donated over the years, to make articles like this one possible. We need your support to help Citizen Matters sustain and grow. Please do contribute today. Donate now
The beginning of the year saw an important step taken towards implementation of the Disha Act passed by the Andhra Pradesh legislature in mid-December. On January 3rd, two women officers were appointed to ensure effective implementation of the new law, which provides for tougher punishment and faster delivery of justice in cases involving crimes against women and children. This was when the country was still in shock over the brutal gang rape and murder of a young veterinarian in Hyderabad.
Among other key provisions of the Disha Act are the establishment of exclusive special courts in every district and the creation of an offenders’ registry for crimes against women and children.
What the law does not address explicitly, however, is the stumbling block at the very first stage of the process of seeking justice – filing a police complaint.
Not just in AP, but across cities and states, many women hesitate to report crimes against them, especially sexual violence, because of the response from police officials. There have been numerous instances of police failing to register an FIR in rape cases, or turning away the victim, or being harshly insensitive.
In the Disha case for instance, the police came under criticism for the way it responded to the first complaints from the victim’s sister. Earlier in April 2019, in Punjab’s Mohali, a call centre employee raped by a cab driver had a harrowing time getting her complaint registered, as officials kept sending her from one police station to another, citing grounds of jurisdiction.
In another 2017 case in Bhopal,the police refused to lodge an FIR over the gang rape of a 19-year-old woman, the daughter of a police couple, citing a jurisdictional issues. Five cops were later suspended after it was verified by the authorities that it indeed took nearly 24 hours for the woman, a college student, to get her complaint registered, as three officers at three police stations kept saying that the crime had taken place outside their jurisdiction. If this can happen to a daughter of a police officer couple, one can easily imagine the plight of others.
Ranjana Kumari, Director of the Delhi-based research and advocacy organisation, Centre for Social Research, points out “If the police don’t file a charge sheet within 60 days of a rape case, the culprits get bail and they take revenge on the victims, as happened in the Unnao case. There are many such cases, though only this one came to light.”
Having more women in police stations
It must be noted, however, that several steps have been taken across states to address the issue and improve ease of reporting of crimes against women. But their effectiveness and efficiency on the ground vary from city to city.
A 2018 report found that establishment of ‘all woman police stations’ had increased reportage of crime by 22%, as women felt more comfortable approaching these stations. The study by researchers at the University of Essex in the UK and University of Connecticut in the USA found that in these police stations, “officers are less likely to exhibit skewed gender norms about the roles of women or tolerance of violence committed against them, (and hence) the recording and subsequent filing of FIRs increased”.
Ground reports, however, do not paint a uniform countrywide picture as is evident from the following reports.
BHOPAL: MP’s first all women police station was set up in Bhopal in 1987, following which such stations were set up in nine more cities.. Cases relating to dowry harassment, family disputes, molestation, and sexual assaults are registered at these women police stations. Counselling is first done in cases of dowry harassment and family disputes. If the case is still not resolved, then an FIR is filed. But the government has now decided to close these women police stations and instead depute two women police personnel to record such complaints at each of the 950 police stations of the state.
DELHI: Following a brainstorming session on the causes of violence against women, Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) during 2004-10, Sagar Preet Hooda, launched the Parivartan initiative. Parivartan Cells sought to build a sustainable partnership with society for creating a safe and violence free environment for women and children through effective deployment of Women Beat Constables in sensitive areas. This was in addition to efforts to generate awareness, sensitize society and obtain their feedback and suggestions.
As part of the many-pronged programme, 40 women police constables (WPCs) were deployed in the “Implementation Team” in 20 beats under the supervision of an officer of the rank of Deputy Commissioner of Police designated as Nodal Officer.
However, Ranjana Kumari feels that despite this initiative and Delhi Police having the highest number of women in its force (9% compared to the all India figure of 7%), “it has not been very successful in checking crimes against women since too many of its personnel are deployed on VIP duty most of the time and there are not enough police personnel to cover all areas. There is also a need to sensitise police towards women’s issues.”
The Centre for Social Research had suggested the creation of a special police force for women, tasked exclusively with handling cases involving women.
CHANDIGARH: The city has a women police station at sector 17, manned by lady police staff. The station was established with a mandate for speedy registration of complaints related to dowry, domestic violence and cruelty. It is expected to co-ordinate with the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit, Rape Crisis Intervention Center, and Scheduled caste/Scheduled Tribes Cell. It also conducts programmes to educate girls about their rights, imparts training on self-defence and acts as a counselling center for matrimonial disputes.
Officials in the Public Relations Department, however, were unable to provide detailed information of the activities undertaken so far. A visit to the police station was a revelation. A lady constable, busy chatting away on a mobile phone, manned the reception. In the absence of the PRO, some of the other staff volunteered some information.
The station has over 750 women-related cases under investigation. “We get a lot of cases related to domestic disputes/violence. The first step is to register a complaint and try and resolve these through counseling. This is done for at least six months. It is only when the mediation efforts fail that we register an FIR,” said a police official.
MUMBAI: The Maharashtra Police had asked all its units to establish Mahila Police Kaksha (Women Help Desk) to prevent, detect and investigate crimes against women. As of now, 975 such cells have been established with the addition of women police officers and police constables.
There are also Mahila Suraksha Samitis (Women Safety Committees) which, with police intervention, provides legal assistance to women in crises. The committee includes legal advisors and social workers.
“While such measures are needed, we are hardly aware of it,” said 23-year-old Sapna*, a resident of Chembur, who herself had been a victim of assault. “I was at my friend’s place when this happened. He assaulted me at night and I hid in the bathroom. As it was late in the night, I didn’t feel safe enough to go to Govandi station. I waited till 5 am to go to the police station. Also, there is always a hesitancy to approach the police because of the long procedures that follow.”
But there are others who who have a more positive tale to tell. Yashika*, 26, resident of Kandivali had a different experience. “I was getting calls daily from different numbers. I was being stalked. I went and filed a case at the nearby police station. I found them approachable and helpful.”
SAKHI – One stop centres for women
In 2015, the Union Ministry for Women and Child Development launched the One Stop Centre Scheme (OSCs), intended to support women affected by violence, in private and public spaces, within the family, community and at the workplace. These centres were also recommended to have signage with the name ‘Sakhi – One Stop Centres.’
The Scheme aimed to provide a range of services for women victims of violence, including police facilitation, legal counselling, psycho-social counselling, medical aid and temporary shelter in an integrated manner under one roof. According to a government release dated November 2019, 728 OSCs have been sanctioned and 595 of these have started operations across states.
The OSCs were to be integrated with 181 and other existing helplines. Women in need of redressal services could be referred to OSC through these helplines.
BHOPAL: Immediate assistance and relief are provided to women visiting 24×7 One Stop Crisis Centres in the city. The government has linked the CM Helpline 181 and Ambulance Service 108 and 1090 for this purpose. The Centres are run jointly by the police, Health Department and the Prosecution Branch. Victims of domestic violence, rape victims, acid attack victims, abducted or destitute women found by the police are given shelter at Sakhi Centres.
Women coming here get all help under one roof. The FIR of the victim is registered at the centre itself. The DIR (Domestic Information Report) is also prepared at the centre. Medical examination, facilities of lodging, boarding and treatment in emergency situations are provided at this centre. Advocates are available through Legal Aid for legal advice to the women. All services at the centre are totally free.
The Sakhi Centres have been helpful for many women. One of the women who received assistance from this centre said, “I got all the help after I visited the Sakhi Centre. I think this type of facility should be available at other places also.”
CHANDIGARH: The UT Administration set up a One Stop Centre (OSC) at Nari Niketan to provide help to women victims. The Centre is a community initiative and is staffed by volunteers who get a token payment of Rs 1000 per month. Women facing any kind of violence, sexual harassment, sexual assault, domestic violence, trafficking, honor related crimes or acid attacks are provided specialized services at the Center. According to the Sakhi mandate, women are provided medical aid, police assistance, counselling, legal aid and shelter for five days. But the Centre does not get many cases due to lack of public awareness.
Apart from these steps, police in these cities have started several initiatives to enable wider reporting of crimes, but generating awareness remains a major hurdle.
Recently, the Ministry of Home Affairs approved a ‘Safe City Project’ in several cities including Mumbai. As part of the project, the Mumbai police said they would use Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance, along with CCTV cameras installed in more than 500 locations. Using state-of-the-art technology, the police will identify the areas where crimes are reported frequently and install panic buttons. The panic buttons will send an alert to the nearest police station and help will be provided immediately.
Further, police have decided to give public transport vehicles like auto-rickshaws and buses a QR code and Radio Frequency Identification tags (RFID) so that they can be tracked.
The Maharashtra Police launched a toll-free helpline number 103 in Mumbai, Thane and Navi Mumbai police units. For other regions, the helpline number is 1091. It is mandatory to display all helpline numbers on public transport like auto-rickshaws, buses, local trains to raise awareness. But this effort hasn’t yielded the expected result. “As a Mumbaikar, I prefer local trains and auto-rickshaws the most when I commute, but I have seen only a few vehicles displaying these numbers,” said Rashika Aggarwal*, 25, resident of Byculla.
Efforts are also on to increase gender sensitization among police forces. In March 2019, the Madhya Pradesh (MP) Police and ActionAid Association signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), enabling ActionAid to act as a technical support agency for the state police to develop a gender sensitization and capacity-building curriculum. ActionAid will be providing active support to the state police in its efforts towards establishing gender justice in its functioning.
Ranjana Kumari of Delhi’s Centre for Social Research also conducts training for constabulary at the thana level and had earlier worked with Delhi Police in imparting training on gender sensitisation. “We held courses at the Delhi Police training college too,” she said.
Will more women speak up now?
Greater awareness of all these initiatives and continuity of operations is going to be crucial to ensure that women change their perception of the process associated with reporting crimes against them.
In 2016, following an incident of gangrape near Bhopal’s Habibganj station, the erstwhile DIG of Bhopal Police launched a Woman Safety app, that is still displayed on the police website. But when women try to upload or seek information on the app today, the message displayed reads “Not Found”. At the same time, the Nirbhaya Mobile Vans started for the safety of the girl students have disappeared from the city. Maitri, the security squad of women police, and Shakti Squad too are inactive.
Till the concerned authorities across cities can prevent such failures and close such loopholes in implementation, all good intentions may come to nought.
*Names changed on request