Officers posted in police stations with dedicated women's help desks (WHDs) are more likely to register cases of gender-based violence, especially in resource-constrained and patriarchal environments, a study has found.
The study, which entailed the largest known randomised controlled trial of police reform in India, was conducted by researchers from the University of Virginia in the US and the University of Oxford in the UK. It argues that it's not enough to add female officers to the police force simply, and that gender sensitisation of men and women officers is vital to addressing gender-based violence. The findings were published on July 7 in the peer-reviewed academic journal Science, The Print reported.
Focussing on 180 police stations in Madhya Pradesh, the team conducted a massive randomised controlled trial of reform measures. The researchers chose the state as it's similar to much of northern India regarding socio-economic indicators and gender norms.
Lack Of Trust Can Result In Under-Reporting Of Crimes
The ability to report crimes to law enforcement is a significant step in addressing gender-based violence, however, a lack of trust in police and stigma surrounding violence against women can result in under-reporting, the study says.
It adds that police unresponsiveness creates a vast gap between the incidence of crime and the rates at which such crimes are addressed formally.
During the trial, the research team evaluated the effect of WHDs, whose personnel are trained to be gender-sensitive and have an enlisted panel of lawyers, NGOs and psychologists to facilitate legal aid, counseling, shelter, rehabilitation, and training.
Women's Help Desks Helpful In Filing More FIRs, DIRs
While gender-targeted police reforms are usually proposed to help curb gender-based violence, the study reveals evidence of their efficacy remains mixed.
The researchers collected data from five sources, including administrative data on crimes registered from May 2018 to March 2020 at police stations assessed for the study, CCTV data from the entrances of these police stations, a user survey of individuals who visited them, surveys of the personnel, and a survey of citizens about safety, opinions, and contact with the police.
The data from police stations with no WHDs was also compared with those with WHDs run entirely by females, and those run by male and female officers.
The findings suggest that efforts focusing on women's cases can make police officers more responsive to women's security concerns even in resource-constrained and patriarchal environments. The study says this is reflected in the higher registration of First Information Reports (FIRs) and Domestic Incident Reports (DIRs) between 2018 and 2020.
Domestic violence can be registered in a DIR, a complaint mechanism created under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005. Filing a DIR starts civil proceedings and referrals to social services, allows for protection orders and economic support, and may lead to criminal proceedings. Unlike FIRs registered at police stations, the DIR is filed with the local magistrate.
Through WHD training, officers acquired knowledge of the DIR and learned to coordinate with other state and civil society agencies, the study says.
The researchers found that the presence of additional female officers is critical for overcoming barriers to FIR registration. The authors write that this gender-differentiated effect exists for FIRs, but not DIRs.
They suggest that this may happen because, unlike a DIR, an FIR automatically initiates a criminal case, requiring the investment of police time for investigation and court proceedings.
Women Police Officers Responsive To WHD Training
The study found that female police officers appear to have exceptionally responsive to WHD training.
"WHDs helped to give visibility and ascribe value to work on women's causes, rather than casting such work as peripheral to and therefore of lesser significance than other crime prevention tasks," the authors said.
"Our findings noted that descriptive representation does matter, women officers played a significant role in shaping the impact of the help desks," they added.
The study also highlights the limitations of police-centered reforms. First, gender attitudes among the police personnel are hard to change despite training, but women officers were more receptive. Second, barriers to women reporting these crimes remain, as the citizen survey revealed that only 10 per cent of females were aware of WHDs.
The study also stated that WHD intervention did not do much to address deep-seated economic and social structures that drive violence against women and inhibit their access to justice.
The researchers conclude that efforts to address gender-based violence require multi-pronged approaches that extend beyond police reforms.
Also Read: Fight Against Pollution! India's First E-Waste Eco Park To Come Up In Delhi's Holambi Kalan