The 2012 gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi led to a significant expansion of public awareness about crimes against women. Despite this, the data reflect a culture of reluctance or fear when it comes to women reporting crime against themselves and the lack of avenues for women to be able to file cases.
Using the National Judicial Data Grid, which was created under the eCourts project of the Centre’s Department of Justice, the authors of this article found that women file just 8.6% of the total number cases in India in 2021. Only 6.07% of the total criminal cases and 15.9 % of total civil cases were filed by women.
A comparison of the National Judicial Data Grid of criminal cases filed by women with the National Crime Record Bureau data of reported crimes against women showed that the number of criminal cases filed by women is far greater than the number of crimes reported against women.
From this, we infer that a larger proportion of criminal cases lodged by women are not about crimes against the individual herself: these might be criminal cases that she is lodging on behalf of her children or other family members.
The graph below highlights the disparities between the two figures.
In states such as Bihar, this gap is very large: while 284,379 women filed criminal cases in 2021, only 15,359 crimes were reported against women. This disparity is also huge in West Bengal, Delhi, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh.
On the other hand, in the North Eastern states and others such as Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Telangana and Uttarakhand, the disparity is low.
Data from the fifth round of the National Family Health Survey from 2019-’21 confirmed that only a tiny number of women seek help from the police. Women between the ages of 18-49 were asked about how or if they seek help when they experience physical or sexual violence. Most of them seek help from either their or their husband’s family, friends or neighbours.
Across states, on an average, merely 5.20% women seek help from the police in cases of physical or sexual violence. The highest are in Rajasthan (13.5%) and Karnataka (12.4%) and the lowest in Maharashtra (1.6%), Arunachal Pradesh (1.7%), Punjab (1.9%) and Bihar (2%).
The low reporting of crimes against women is not only an Indian phenomenon. According to The World’s Women 2015 report by the United Nations, globally, less than 10% of women suffering from violence seek help from the police.
As Rukmini S argues in her recent book Whole Numbers and Half Truths, the empowerment of an individual to report a crime is a critical reason a crime is registered in the police station.
Women and the legal system
Our research showed that the number of civil and criminal cases filed by women across all states is low.
Civil cases filed by women are higher than criminal cases in most states. The average number of criminal cases lodged by women were a mere 110 per lakh population compared to 2,551.9 criminal cases per lakh filed by the overall population.
When it came to civil cases, women filed 136.4 cases per lakh population all over India compared to 899.7 cases filed per lakh in the general population.
The number of civil cases filed by women per lakh population are highest in states such as Goa (378.2) and Kerala (358.1).
The number of criminal cases lodged by women per lakh population are highest in Delhi (293.7), followed by Uttar Pradesh (281.7), Bihar (273.2), Punjab (184.6), West Bengal (172.3), Madhya Pradesh (123.1) and Jharkhand (122.2).
When female literacy rates are considered and linked to the number of criminal cases filed by women across states, no particular pattern emerges.
However, in North Indian states with relatively lower literacy levels – Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand – the number of criminal cases filed by women is relatively high, indicating a higher crime rate in these states.
Fewer cases are lodged by women in the North Eastern states, even though female literacy rates are comparatively high there. Kerala, Delhi and Himachal Pradesh are the only states with high female literacy rates where the number of criminal cases filed by women are also high.
In 2020, there was a drop in the number of reported crimes against women, at 3,71,503, compared to 2019 at 4,05,326.
Some observers say that this could be a result of the fear of easier retaliation by the perpetrator during the pandemic, proximity to the perpetrator, and limited contact with systems and institutions that could offer help.
Nonetheless, even if we consider the reported cases in 2019, the numbers of reported crimes against women are far lower than the number of criminal cases filed by women.
What can be done to ensure that more women feel empowered enough to report crimes to the police? The establishment of Nirbhaya squads at police stations with mostly women police officers appears to be a step in the right direction.
Other initiatives like the Bharosa cells, in cities such as Nagpur, Pune and others, that respond and engage with issues particular to women and children have also shown positive results.
Educational initiatives aimed at creating more awareness about various laws and the legal procedures of lodging complaints will also help bring about change.
Finally, data must be gathered on the kinds of civil and criminal cases filed by women across states. Such data will not only help shed more light on the nature of crimes in various regions, but may also help design interventions that aid women in filing cases.
Juhi Sidharth is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Gender Studies at Flame university, Pune. Smriti Jalihal is a Research Associate at the Centre for Knowledge Alternatives at Flame University, Pune.