"Patriarchal" police reach out to women a year after Delhi gang rape

New Delhi, Dec.16: On the first anniversary of the brutal December 16 gang rape, the city’s police force has rolled out several initiatives to help women break free from the culture of silence surrounding sexual-related violence in what is still a highly-conservative society.

In the impoverished Delhi suburb of Burari, 62-year-old housewife Sabto has been beaten almost every night with a wooden rod by her drunk husband for the past three decades.

Like many victims of domestic violence, she hid the bruises on her battered body and kept silent – scared of her husband, mistrusting of the police and worried what her neighbours in Burari would think.

But one night in March, when he staggered into their one-roomed house and lifted the wooden rod to strike her, the elderly woman did not cower as usual, but rose up and grabbed it – hitting him back with a force she never thought existed.

“I started taking these classes, and finally learnt it. I gained confidence and started believing that even I can fight back. When he (her husband) was beating me, I thought how I could save myself from this. When he was beating me with a wooden rod, I snatched it and struck him back. Since that day, he stopped beating me,” she said.

Sabto was one among the several other women and young girls in her area who were now being emboldened by self-defence training classes, organised by police under ‘Parivartan’ (Hindi word for change) scheme.

Shouting in tune with the rhythm of attack, even young girls below the age of fifteen felt themselves to be self-reliant and protected as they practised their karate stances in long queues.

“Whosoever has taken the initiative to train us, has done the right thing. We should be able to protect ourselves whenever boys tease us. I thank all those people who taught me this,” said Shallu, a 10-year-old girl.

The Delhi police initiative gained momentum following the high profile brutal gang rape and murder of a woman a year ago.

The case – which drove thousands of urban Indians to protest against rising violence against women – spotlighted inaction by the country’s male-dominated, unsympathetic and poorly resourced police force as one of the biggest reasons why perpetrators act with a sense of impunity.

One year on, the criticism has forced the 80,000-strong police force in New Delhi to try to revamp its patriarchal image through a series of measures, ranging from the self defence classes to community patrols.

The victim, who was raped and tortured with a metal rod for an hour on a moving bus, became a symbol of the dangers women face in a country where a rape is reported on average every 21 minutes and acid attacks and cases of molestation are common. She died after two weeks.

Originally launched in 2005, the ‘Parivartan’ scheme was broadened after the rape and murder of the 23-year-old physiotherapist that spotlighted women safety in India.

Police said that post-December 16, woman constables were directed to conduct door-step policing for identification and redressal of grievances of women within the community.

Police said that it had changed its methodology to counter and prevent crime against women after receiving scores of emails and letters from women across the world post December 16 incident.

While much can be attributed to greater awareness as a result of voracious reporting of crimes against women by the media and campaign by women’s rights groups, police say their own initiatives are also making a difference.

A new law which was introduced following the Delhi gang rape has forced police to be held more accountable – punishing them with up to three years imprisonment if they fail to register sexual offences.

In addition, duty officers and beat constables attend gender sensitisation classes where lawyers and social workers explain the problems faced by victims of sexual assault and senior officers provide information on new legislation aimed at protecting women.

“We cannot rule out totally that these incidents or these offences were not happening earlier. But it is because of the awareness of the people that they can now ascertain their rights by going to the police station for registering the FIR (First Information Report). And on the other side, I can say that the police officials, now they have become very humble, and they do register the case without any delay,” said lawyer and member of Delhi Commission for women, Shubra Mendiratta.

In most of the city’s 160 police stations, women’s help desks have been established, staffed around the clock by a female police officer. A 1091 women’s helpline was set up a year ago in the police head quarters – which receives on average 250 phone calls a day – mainly cases of domestic violence, sexual harassment and molestation.

While the number of lines for the general emergency helpline100 rose to 100 from 10, there were 10 separate hotlines for 1091.

The women officers were now attending calls from either women whispering about their household grievances or seeking urgent help on being attacked anywhere in the city.

As a cumulative effect of all these initiatives, special commissioner for crime in Delhi police, Dharmendra Kumar, said that the number of complaints from women had gone up considerably.

“What has happened is that the number of complaints has gone up because we have encouraged women to come, they are now coming freely to the police station. They are going straight to the women’s helpdesk and they are lodging their complaints which is being recorded as it is by the officers,” he said.

In 2012, the police had 612 complaints of molestations, but this year the figure jumped to 3182. Similarly, in case of rapes, the number rose from 642 to 1472, said Kumar.

More women were also being recruited into the police, said senior officials, adding that only eight percent of the current force are women.

But while women’s rights groups have welcomed such initiatives, they say crimes against women are still widely under-reported and that much more needs to be done – not just in Delhi, but across the country.

For example, investment in training police to investigate gender crimes is desperately needed, they say, adding that investigations into rapes are often shoddy due to poor collection of evidence, resulting in weak prosecutions, few convictions and lenient jail terms.

They are also calling for legal reforms to ensure speedy justice. Despite the establishment of fast-track courts, India has still has far too few courts, judges and prosecutors for its 1.2 billion people and there is backlog of million of cases.

According to charity ActionAid India, while reported rape cases in India rose by more than 50 percent between 2001 and 2012, conviction rates have dropped to 24 from 41 percent in the same period.

Despite claims of positive change by the police, women in Delhi say they still hesitate approaching the cops on being stalked or molested.

“Police has become more approachable but even today girls, they, I don’t know why, but they still hesitate approaching the police. I don’t know why?” an English literature student, Priya, said.

A law passed in March provides for stricter punishments on gender crimes. It punishes repeat rape offenders with death, criminalises voyeurism and stalking and makes acid attacks, gang rape and trafficking specific offences.

Social media sites are full of debate and even Bollywood stars and cricketers are joining campaigns to promote women’s safety. (ANI)