In 2012, the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old New Delhi woman prompted massive protest marches in the Indian capital, the eventual executions of the four men sentenced in the assault, and global headlines casting a spotlight on gender-based violence in India. Ten years later, the country still faces problems with gender-based violence and gender inequality; in 2021 it was ranked 140th – out of 156 countries – in a 2021 World Economic Forum report assessing gender inequality around the world.
A new police reform study, led by University of Virginia professors Sandip Sukhtankar and Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner – in collaboration with a University of Oxford researcher and law enforcement leaders in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh – offers a possible avenue to improving investigative responses to gender-based crimes and to making victims more comfortable reporting them.
According to the study, published earlier this month in Science, the establishment of specialized help desks for women in local police stations in Madhya Pradesh led to the increased registration of cases of gender-based violence, especially when those help desks were staffed by female officers.
The findings from the largest randomized controlled trial of police reform measures to date suggest that deliberate measures designed to make police officers more responsive to women’s security needs, and the presence of female officers in visible positions of authority, can be effective in making the police more accountable to women and in increasing women’s access to the justice system.
“As in many parts of the world, and particularly in India, these types of cases simply go unreported,” said Sukhtankar, an associate professor of economics in UVA’s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and co-director of the University’s Democracy Initiative’s Corruption Lab on Ethics, Accountability and the Rule of Law. “And the essential first step is registration of cases. Previous estimates suggest that anywhere from 95 to 99% of cases are not reported, and even fewer are registered.
“The judicial system in India is hugely backlogged and problematic and has a lot of issues, but just the fact that thousands more women are able to even access the justice system because of this intervention is a huge deal,” Sukhtankar continued. “Everybody who works on these topics in India knows sort of how hard it is to move the needle on this.”
The basic ability to report crimes to law enforcement is a crucial step in protecting women against violence, according to researchers. However, a lack of trust in police and social stigma surrounding gender-based violence can result in the under-reporting of such crimes. This, as well as a general unresponsiveness to women’s concerns by police, has resulted in a large gap between the incidence of crime and the rates in which they are formally addressed, studies show. As a result, gender-targeted police reforms are often proposed to help curb this growing problem.
From 2018 to 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, the project partnered with the Madhya Pradesh Police to evaluate the impact of a program that randomized the introduction of women’s help desks, or WHDs, in 180 police stations serving 23 million people. These new WHDs offered a private space for women to make a complaint to an officer trained on gender sensitization and case registration procedures. Study police stations were randomly divided into three groups: control stations (without WHDs); “woman-run” WHDs with assigned female officers; and a control group of “regular” WHDs that did not specify gender of the assigned officer (the majority of which were run by men).
The partnership with the police force and the interdisciplinary nature of the research served as a core strength of the project, said Kruks-Wisner, an associate professor of politics whose research examines local citizenship practice and local governance, the politics of accountability, and welfare provision, with a regional focus on India.
“As a research team, we brought together different disciplines – economic, politics, public administration,” she said. “But just as importantly, our team included partners within the police itself, as well as legal experts and representatives from local civil society organizations. So we were learning all the time from really different perspectives.”
Madhya Pradesh served as a good test case for project in part because of the region’s reputation for deep-rooted patriarchy and widespread violence against women. Women there often hesitate to report violence, due in part to low levels of trust in the police. Even when women did report cases historically, the police were often dismissive, reflecting patriarchal norms that seek to “protect families” by minimizing legal cases, as well as political incentives to show lower crime rates.
Rishi Shukla, former director-general of the Madhya Pradesh Police and former director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, visited UVA last May for a conference and offered advice on the project.
“Crime against women is a major challenge for the Indian police,” Shukla said. “Sincere systematic as well as innovative responses have been made over the years to encourage women to reach out to the police in times of need. In the state of Madhya Pradesh, we have been seeking evidence-based policymaking and implementation. [The] research on this subject is significant, as it highlights the improved quality of response of the police to women needing assistance. The rigorous research has come up with excellent policy inputs which would improve access of women to the police and mainstream reforms at the police station level.”
Over the 11 months of the study, case registration of crimes against women and domestic violence increased significantly in police stations with WHDs, compared to those without. Specifically, police stations with WHDs registered 1,905 more Domestic Incident Reports, which initiate civil court proceedings; and 3,360 more First Information Reports, or FIRs, which initiate criminal proceedings. Notably, the increase in FIRs was driven entirely by the woman-run WHDs, highlighting the agency of female officers who appeared to be particularly responsive to WHD training. Female officers also exhibited a change in gender attitudes, becoming more likely to believe the claims of women than to dismiss them. (This change was not seen in male officers, according to the study.)
Other findings were mixed, however. Although officers in stations with WHDs were more likely to register cases of gender-based violence, particularly in stations where female officers staffed the desks, women were no more likely to report crimes. The arrest rates in gender-based crimes were largely unaffected. Nonetheless, the study’s authors believe the data suggest that police responsiveness to gender-based violence can be improved by focusing attention on women’s cases through greater gender representation within the police force.
“These findings suggest that, to better serve women, we need women on the front lines in the police,” Sukhtankar said. “But it’s not enough to simply add women; female officers need to be supported and valued for the critical work they do in increasing women’s access to justice.”
Law enforcement leaders in India have already taken note of the study. Madhya Pradesh Police is currently scaling up the WHD program to 700 police stations serving most of the state. With continued support from the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab’s Innovation in Government Initiative, the researchers will examine whether the changes in police behavior can be sustained, and how the program adapts on a large scale.
Sukhtankar and Kruks-Wisner’s study, done in collaboration with Akshay Mangla, a political scientist and associate professor of international business at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, was funded primarily by the Crime and Violence Initiative of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as the World Bank’s Sexual Violence Research Initiative. UVA’s Center for Global Inquiry and Innovation and the University of Oxford provided supplemental funding.