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Three women in khaki uniforms walking down a street, past a nun in a blue and white habit.

Female police officers on patrol in Kerala, India.Credit: Saumya Khandelwal/Redux/eyevine

Police in India are more likely to register crimes reported by women in stations with dedicated women’s help desks than in those without. And help desks staffed by female officers record more crimes against women that result in mandatory criminal investigations. The results come from the largest-ever randomized controlled trial of police reforms, published this week in Science1.

One-third of women globally have experienced gender-based violence — including attacks by intimate partners or others — but only a small fraction report the violence to the police. In India, about four women in ten experience intimate-partner violence, and police often discourage them from making a complaint that would initiate a formal investigation, because of high workloads and a false belief that women are to blame.

This situation has prompted calls for police reform. Some measures, used in India and elsewhere, involve recruiting more women into the police force and setting up women-only stations. The hope is that this will counter patriarchal attitudes and make justice more accessible to female complainants. But the results have been mixed. Researchers have found2 that all-female police stations in India don’t increase the number of cases registered; instead, women seeking help at their local stations are redirected to far-away women-only stations.

In 2017, the police force in Madhya Pradesh, a state in the heartland of India known for its patriarchal culture, decided to improve its response to gender-based violence. It approached economists at the Abdul Lateef Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to help it overcome the barriers that keep women from reporting crimes and the police from recording them. The laboratory is known for performing randomized controlled trials to test social interventions.

Sandip Sukhtankar, an economist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and an affiliate of J-PAL, worked with colleagues to set up a randomized controlled trial testing gender-based reforms in policing. The experiment covered 180 police stations serving 23.4 million people.

Women’s desks

Stations were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Those in the control group received no intervention. In one treatment group, the police set up cubicles or private rooms as women’s help desks. The researchers helped the police to create a manual for registering reports of intimate-partner violence and helping female visitors, and trained officers in the procedures. They also asked police to connect with the local community to get the word out about the help desks. Stations in a third group had all the same components, but staffed their women’s help desks with female officers. The trial ran for 11 months.

“They had tried a version of this intervention in the past, but it was not systematized,” says Sukhtankar. “So they wanted to see, if it’s done correctly, if this could work.”

The researchers found that the stations with women’s help desks helped women to lodge more complaints of intimate-partner violence in civil courts — an extra 1,905 cases — compared with control stations. Stations with women’s help desks also registered an extra 3,360 cases of crimes against women that led to mandatory criminal investigations — although this 14.1% increase was driven almost entirely by the stations with help desks staffed by female officers. However, the increase in civil and criminal cases did not lead to more arrests. Furthermore, there was no change in the number of women reporting crimes. The authors say this is probably partly because only 10% of women in the local communities were aware of the help desks.

“What we can clearly see is that of the women that did show up to the police station, they had just a much better experience overall, they were listened to, they were more likely to be believed,” says Sukhtankar.

Trained responders

The impact might be down to the training that the police officers received, especially in places with poor gender norms, says Sofia Amaral, an economist at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany who studies gender-based violence in India. The study “is a very important result”, she says. “Making it easy for women to seek help by better equipping stations and officers through state infrastructures can be an avenue to improving women’s conditions.”

In interviews with police officers, the study team found that trained female officers were less likely than female officers in control stations to think that women were reporting false cases. The same effect was not seen in trained male officers. But whether the slight improvement will persist in the long run remains to be studied. Audrey D’Mello, a lawyer with Majlis, a non-profit organization based in Mumbai, India, that provides legal help to women, says that even female officers who receive training can become insensitive as they try to prove themselves in a male-dominated profession.

“Police recording more [cases] is a good thing because then it means the police are doing their job,” says D’Mello. In her decades of experience, she has often seen police just reprimand a man accused of intimate-partner violence, without registering a case, because it is less work. “The job of the police is to record cases — not to do settlement and negotiation.”

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