At the height of the lockdown against the coronvirus last year, a 22-year-old man started sending lewd messages and making repeated calls to several women in various states, masking his true identity through software that made it appear as if the phone number originated overseas.

His game was finally up when he tried to cyber-stalk a woman lawyer, who complained to the police about this harassment.

It may appear unusual, but there has been a profusion of such cases over the past few months. While the digital age has opened up flexible work-from-home options during the pandemic, women are now increasingly subjected to new kinds of crime.

From direct bullying and intimidation on social media to pictures of private moments released online, the scope of such criminal attacks has increased exponentially. This comes at a time when women’s participation in the workforce has increased, thanks to technology.

Indian society at crossroads

These developments have put Indian society at a new crossroad. Therefore, the larger question is whether India is prepared for a new age of policing that is now required?

The answer will have to be both a yes and no. While the Central and state governments have recognised the need for a new policy approach to law enforcement, the intent is far from having advanced to real implementation on several counts.

Commendably, the government has launched a series of initiatives such as introducing a mobile app with a “SHOUT” feature. In addition to connecting them to Emergency Response Support System, alerts registered volunteers in the vicinity to provide immediate help in addressing crimes against women.

It has put in place an Emergency Response Support System – a nationwide 24/7 emergency support line for anyone in distress – which has been equipped with location-based services and integrated with computer-aided dispatch, police vans equipped with mobile data terminals and one-stop centres for women.

Simultaneously, India has embarked on Safe City projects that focus on enhanced surveillance through infrastructure for increasing women safety. There are also plans to introduce things like panic buttons on public transport, which shows the policy direction is right.

Big gap in intent and action

Sadly, there is a big gap in actual implementation that would make our women feel genuinely safe and secure as they go about leading busier lives than ever before.

Even a casual chat with women will show that nine out of ten of them have been, at some time in life, subject to some kind of harassment, either online or offline. It may have happened while they were in office, commuting or even at homes from their relatives or family friends.

But the crime rate registered per 100,000 women tallied only 62.4 as recently as 2019.

Clearly, there is not enough confidence in the law enforcement system. This is because at multiple levels, right from complaint registration to witness and victim-friendly proceedings during trials, women probably feel it is better to let incidents pass than seek redressal.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime enumerates several parameters to encourage reporting and trial of such cases by emphasising that victims and witnesses should be treated with courtesy, respect and fairness.

It underscores a need for gender sensitisation across the system to establish such a culture.

Depending on the case, measures need to be in place to protect the victim or a witness including the use of shields or screens, testimony via videoconference, anonymous testimony or allowing the presence of an accompanying person during court hearings.

Due to the lack of confidence in the law enforcement system in India, women often feel it is better to let incidents pass than seek redressal. Photo credit: PTI

India cannot be an outlier globally

Clearly, by those parameters, India will have to be an outlier despite its well-established judicial system and law enforcement procedures. The problem starts with a gender bias in our police force itself, as the proportion of women stands at around 7%, one of the world’s lowest.

The Central government has recognised this and announced that 33% of the police force positions would be for women, but not enough of them want to join. According to a Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative report, women face challenges at every stage of their career, right from recruitment, postings, promotion to lack of necessary facilities including separate toilets.

Women are concentrated at the lower ranks of police and in junior positions, many suffer sexual harassment themselves, an aspect not acknowledged enough by the police leadership. Worldwide, the police force’s sensitivity to crimes against any particular section of society is in direct proportion to their representation in law enforcement.

A clearly defined criterion during annual performance evaluations on how each person scores on responsiveness to crimes against women is one of the suggestions from the National Commission for Women, over a decade ago, to achieve the goal of a gender-sensitive police force.

There has to be a level of empathy between the complainant and personnel to whom such crimes are reported. Otherwise, establishing helplines and protocols serves no purpose, until and unless there is real access for all women.

The other question we need to ask ourselves is whether there is sufficient awareness among women about the systems and procedures that are in place for their safety. Public campaigns must be at the level of coronavirus disease or polio drops to make them useful.

Given the complexity and proportion of crimes, the desired level of safety and security has to aim as much at prevention rather than merely deterrence. The planning has to start right at city designs and urban spaces for greater surveillance and monitoring.

Though the task of surveying and protecting women in a billion-plus nation may appear like an enormous challenge for an overstretched police force, it may not be that difficult to achieve if sufficient awareness is created so that every citizen is encouraged to fulfil the responsibility.

Volunteers from organisations such as the Rotary Club or colleges and educational institutions can quickly be roped in to extend law enforcement. In some villages and cities, such culture already exists, whereby ordinary citizens rush to aid women in distress.

India needs to only build upon such a culture so that every woman feels safe whether in their homes or offices.

Poornima Advani is a former chairperson of the National Commission for Women.