Once Nirmala notices him, she springs into action. Sitting on the wall outside a busy shopping mall in Jaipur, he looks so ordinary: rucksack slung over one shoulder, a pair of office-ready grey trousers. But now panic begins to wash over his face. Joined by three fellow policewoman, Nirmala closes in.

“Does she look like a child to you?” asked Nirmala, anger bubbling up in her voice.

Another officer, Premlata, takes the man by his arm and escorts him to Gaurav Tower police station, just across the road. The room is small – only a bed, a fan and a small desk fit inside. The shutters are wide open but the window is barricaded with metal bars.

He tries to apologise, but it’s too late.

“When you harass a girl, do you realise how much it disturbs her mind?” questioned Nirmala.

In any other circumstance, this man might have walked free. He appeared silently behind a woman, tapped her on the shoulder and offered her a balloon. He badgered her, wouldn’t leave her alone, but nothing that bad happened, right? It’s better to avoid making a scene, right?

Not today. And not with Jaipur’s all-female police squad on duty.

“It doesn’t matter – if you’re troubling women, then you’re doing something wrong,” said Premlata. “If we take a step the first time something happens, such incidents won’t happen again.”

Jhooma, 29, and Premlata, 35, during their patrolling duty in Jaipur.
Jhooma, 29, and Premlata, 35, during their patrolling duty in Jaipur.

She and Nirmala are two of 52 policewomen who patrol the streets protecting women, preventing crimes like harassment, rape, molestation and assault. No matter how big or small, every such crime against women is taken seriously.

But they’re not only an all-female squad: these women are mounted bikers. In pairs, they zig-zag across the city on motorbikes, interrupting crime when they see it taking place.

“We’re on the road in direct touch with the women – and we can take direct action for them,” explained Nirmala. ‘The cases we register are handled by the police station no matter what. So the power is in our hands. If you’ve harassed a women in anyway, you will be arrested.”

Sexual violence in India

A woman is raped in India every 13 minutes. In 2016, six women were gangraped every day, a bride was murdered for dowry every 69 minutes.

Five years after the Delhi gangrape, in which 23-year-old Jyoti Singh died after being attacked by six men on a bus, women say India is still unsafe. Read any newspaper or website and it’s a heartbreaking stream of abuse – stories pour out with shocking regularity, the latest brutal rape dissected and discussed so much the violence becomes almost normalised.

In recent months, a series of cases shocked the country once again. From the rape, torture and murder of an eight-year-old girl in the state of Jammu to two teenage girls who were raped and then set on fire in Jharkhand – the issue of sexual violence is firmly on the national agenda.

As with the events six years ago, the attacks have given rise to protests. In April, thousands of people took to the streets all over India and prompted demands for stricter rape laws.

So what, if anything, is the solution? Police forces in several parts of the country are hoping they’ve found an answer: all-female squads. Launched in New Delhi, Jaipur and Udaipur, they’re part of an effort to tackle incidences of sexual assault.

In New Delhi, the Raftaar squads have been armed with guns, pepper spray, stun guns and body cameras, and guard crowded areas of the city on motorbikes.

Members of the lady police patrol unit during training at the Reserve Police Lines. The constables are trained in martial arts, yoga, horse riding along with other modes of combat.
Members of the lady police patrol unit during training at the Reserve Police Lines. The constables are trained in martial arts, yoga, horse riding along with other modes of combat.

Launched in May 2017, the pioneering unit in Jaipur, Rajasthan, patrols areas where women are more likely to be, such as bus stops, universities and parks. Each woman on the squad completed a month-long training programme, which included martial arts, fitness, meditation, learning sections of the law needed in the field and horse-riding.

“We knew the lady patrolling units might face men bigger than them and it could act as psychological deterrent,” explained Gaurav Srivastava, the additional commissioner of police spearheading the project. “So the purpose of the horse riding was to show them with the right kind of approach and mindset you can control something even more powerful than yourself.”

Dressed in a blue two-piece, with a baton hanging loosely off their back pocket, the women look intimidating – and that’s entirely the point. The squads originally wore khaki uniforms, like the rest of police in Rajasthan, but were swapped out for a darker tone six months later. In a society dominated by men, the women needed a way to stand out – to show everyone they meant business.

“Their appearance is quite awe-inspiring,” said Srivastava, “and their mere presence in public is both a deterrence and a distraction for offenders.”

Twenty-eight-year-old Jhooma Meena agrees. She joined the police force nine years ago.

Jhooma Mena, 29, a member of the lady patrol unit of Jaipur police at the Jaipur police commissionerate.
Jhooma Mena, 29, a member of the lady patrol unit of Jaipur police at the Jaipur police commissionerate.

“When I wear the uniform, I become confident,” she said. “Before this I would have been afraid to go outside, I would have been scared and nervous to leave my house. Now there’s no reluctance or fear. Men don’t stare at us. When they see us in the uniform, they don’t look at us in the wrong way.”

Not only do the all-female squads prevent harassment, but their literal presence on the street reassures women. Rape still carries a stigma in India – many women are scared to report a crime due to the mostly male police force.

“I think women do feel more comfortable approaching us and sharing their problems,” said Nirmala.

In the first 30 days, Jaipur’s squad received the highest numbers of sexual harassment complaints. One year later, the team have dealt with 256 incidences, nearly one quarter of which lead to arrests.

So far, Jaipur locals seem happy with the police’s effort to protect women.

“We feel safe when we see the female patrols around,” said 32-year-old Sheetal Rathore, who watched the man being carted off outside the shopping mall. Her three-year-old daughter, Devanshe, watched the whole thing, too.

“Women understand the problem more than men but you can’t really trust anyone,” she continued. “I always leave the house with someone – like my husband or brother – because men won’t spare me because I’m married. These people don’t even spare little girls.”

More measures needed

Herein lies the biggest criticism of the all-female squads. While locals say the officers are doing a good job on the ground, many have pointed out it’s not a long-term solution. They do little to curb other systemic problems – like poor police investigations in the aftermath of sexual assaults, and men’s attitude towards women.

Members of the lady police patrol unit during training at the Reserve Police Lines. The constables are trained in martial arts, yoga, horse riding along with other modes of combat.
Members of the lady police patrol unit during training at the Reserve Police Lines. The constables are trained in martial arts, yoga, horse riding along with other modes of combat.

After the 2012 Delhi gangrape, the government promised a flurry of change: to speed up rape trials, provide harsher penalties, including the death sentence in extreme cases, and a law against stalking.

The willingness of women to report sexual crimes indicates a significant shift in attitude (and can be seen in the numbers – crimes against women surged 83% from 2007 to 2016) yet many feel that beneath the surface, little has changed.

Rathore is right, and it’s a flaw the police in Jaipur will readily admit.

“Fifty two policewomen are not enough to cover the entire city of Jaipur,” said Srivastava, “and lots of places are still not covered.”

They’re aiming to double the numbers, but it’s still a way off. And while Jaipur has four police stations (of 60) specifically dedicated to women’s issues, there aren’t always enough female officers to staff them.

This is down to many Indian women rarely seeing the police as a viable career option. Less than 10% of women make up the force in Jaipur, despite the government setting a 30% reservation.

“The mindset that only men can be police officers still exists,” said Sanjay Agarwal, Jaipur’s police commissioner and most senior officer. “It exists not only in the public but within the police force, too.”

“So the all-female squad breaks the glass ceiling,” he said. “They’re independent, confident, well-trained, and we push them up.”

The result? Women start adapting to the role – they don’t believe they’re less or second in anyway because, says Agarwal, of course they’re not. They undergo the same rigorous training as the men do, there’s no relaxing of the rules.

It’s clear both men and women need training on gender issues. Agarwal recounts a story about a battered wife reporting her husband to the police, but once she arrives at the station a male cop simply replies: “What’s so wrong about that? I also beat my wife.”

“That actually happened,” said Agarwal. “For [some of] the officers, it’s not an offence. So women are victims in their own homes, and they come to the police station and become a victim again. We are living in a society that is biased against women. And that inequality is perpetrated by men – that is a fact. That’s why we need less women behind the desk, and more on the frontlines.”

Nirmala Lakhera, 42, poses for a portrait at her home in Jaipur.
Nirmala Lakhera, 42, poses for a portrait at her home in Jaipur.

Role models

Nevertheless, women like Nirmala and Jhooma are becoming role models.

“I grew up in a conservative village and I’m the first woman from there to get a job,” explained Jhooma.

In rural areas, girls are not always educated. They’re often married off young and “that’s why women don’t move forward”.

But Jaipur’s all-female squad are challenging the status quo. They’re visiting schools and telling young girls they’re just as, if not more, powerful than the boys.

“We tell the girls: ‘look, you can patrol just like any guy’. So someday my daughters will go out, and when they see women like us on the street, they won’t be afraid.”

More importantly, women are no longer willing to be quiet. In Delhi, as thousands of protestors took to the streets, the crowd was brimming with teenagers and 20-somethings demanding justice. Their strong, strident chants heard minutes before you’re struck with a sea of Punish The Guilty and Stop Protecting The Rapist signs.

“We need to call rape out for what it is – a hate crime,” said 27-year-old Preeti Gulati, who attended the protest with her friends. A PhD student who grew up in Delhi, she almost rolls her eyes at the question of what needs to change.

“India doesn’t do enough to protect women, but no country in the world does. Patriarchy has existed for 2000 years. Raise your men better.”

Far from being victims, Indian women are not giving up – they’ve taken charge of their lives and refuse to play by society’s shaming rules. They’re causing a scene whether you like it or not.

As Grover said: “Nobody is sitting silent, nobody is accepting this.”

All images by Smita Sharma.

This piece was originally published by ELLE UK in partnership with the Fuller Project for International Reporting.