THE BRUTAL gangrape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi appears to have opened up newer portals for discussion, not just on sex crimes but more generally, the space our society gives to women. A preference for sons, sex discrimination in our homes, glorification of sexual harassment by heroes in Bollywood, the erotica of item numbers pandering to the male gaze, the need for sex education in our schools and gender sensitisation for police, have all become topics of conversations in our drawing rooms. The space provided by the news media to these issues in the past few weeks is unprecedented.
The reverberation of the protests in Delhi will surely be felt across the country for a long time, heralding good tidings and hopefully change the patriarchal mindsets of our legislators, bureaucrats, law enforcement agencies and the society at large, eventually leading to a reduction in crimes against women, and will not lapse into mere rhetoric in the months to come.
One such rhetoric often used by state agencies and civil society partners alike is ‘gender sensitisation’. This demand was first raised by women’s groups in the 1980s after the ill-famed and sexist Supreme Court ruling in the Mathura rape case in which some cops had raped a minor tribal girl in a police station. The apex court had acquitted the policemen on the ground that there were no marks of injuries on the victim’s body and that since she was not a woman of good character she could not have been raped. Subsequent protests resulted in bringing about some changes in the archaic rape laws. But as allegations of insensitivity to victims reporting rape continued, ‘gender sensitisation’ became the buzzword.
After the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing, the pressure on state agencies to conduct such trainings increased and it was made mandatory to incorporate gender sensitisation in all administrative, police and judicial training institutes and budgets were earmarked for this purpose. ‘Gender experts’ were invited to conduct these trainings. But since then huge resources have gone down the drain with officials none the wiser, or rather, none the more sensitised. No one seems to have conducted a public audit of the correlation between the money spent and the impact the trainings have had upon the participants in changing their attitude towards women while performing their official duties. That part remains distinct and separate from the trainings with the trainers having no access to assess this.
There is hardly any women’s rights NGO worth its salt that has not been involved in “police trainings”. And yet, we are confronted, year after year, with the same rhetoric that the police are not gender sensitised and there is need for further sensitisation; the underlying presumption being, a ‘gender sensitised’ police officer will act differently when dealing with issues of crimes against women such as rape, domestic violence, dowry murder, sex trafficking, etc. Yet we have no studies or even experiential anecdotes to measure the impact of the training on individual officers. How were they performing their duties prior to the training and what change was brought about after the training?
Perhaps the problem lies in the manner in which the trainings are conducted with no understanding of the role, functioning, processes and dynamics that operate within a police station. Usually, the seminars are lectures on the status of women in society, difference between sex and gender or social construction of gender, the increasing rate of crimes against women in society, etc. Sometimes, there are interactive games or quizzes. If the workshop is of longer duration, there are roleplays or group exercises. These usually turn out to be light-hearted entertainment. There are no expectations of any outcome, accountability or impact assessment. Gender training seems to be an item in the laundry list that has to be ticked off.
At times, the lectures delivered by external experts contradict with the messages delivered by other internal trainers who are high-ranking officers and command respect from the trainees, and ultimately, it is the superior’s words that the trainee will abide by. The trainees either tolerate or are downright disdainful of the message delivered by the external expert or, at best, consider it as a ‘general knowledge’ lecture. If the officers are senior in rank and the external expert a young NGO worker, he/she becomes the butt of ridicule. If the NGO expert is older, and can hold his/her position, then the sessions become confrontational and the purpose of the training is lost.
In one such training for mid-career officers, when the acquittal in the Banwari Devi gangrape and the adverse comments made by the presiding judge were being presented by a trainer, one of the participant confronted her and challenged her version and informed the group that since the case was filed 5-6 days after the incident, and since there were contradictions between the FIR and deposition in court, there was no question of any conviction. He knew the facts of the case better than the trainer as he was the Superintendent of Police of the district at that time, he told the group.
IT IS time we moved away from such meaningless exercises to the more serious task of framing protocols that are binding. Several protocols and guidelines already exist, which are issued from time to time, but there are inconsistencies or ambiguities that are confusing. And more often than not, once issued, they are forgotten and no one takes them seriously and there is no monitoring whether they are being followed. What is worse, no officer or training institute seems to be having a complete compilation of the guidelines on specific issues, e.g. protocols on Bancrimes against women, for ready reference. It becomes a Herculean task to obtain copies as no one ever takes them seriously and they remain ornamental pieces of official files to be tucked away.
There is hardly any women’s rights NGO worth its salt that has not been involved in ‘police trainings’
But this is not how the police machinery treats serious issues such as threats of terrorist attacks. One can see this in the manner in which each constable, male and female, has been trained in recent years to conduct body checks and baggage scans at each government office since the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. The message has clearly gone down, the protocols are followed, and there is a constant check on how the officers are performing their duties. There may be a few lapses but at least they are brought to light and action is taken against errant police officers.
It is this type of diligence that we need within the police force for gender issues. A clear guideline of dos and don’ts that are readily available. The need is to first compile the existing guidelines, scan them for inconsistencies, streamline them and identify gaps. Once the process is complete, the highest authority must accept it as part of the standard operating procedure.
They also need to be publicised so that the public at large is aware as to what to expect from a police officer on duty. Only with binding and transparent procedures, the fear of the public that the police is prone to corruption or political influence will diminish. The police stations should be open to periodic external audit as to whether the protocols are being adhered to. And any officer who fails to follow the protocol should be reprimanded. We don’t need ‘sensitised’ cops. We need officers who perform their duties towards women with due diligence and respect, at all times, protecting the dignity of women as mandated by our Constitution.