Employment of women in the police was initially viewed with scepticism and disfavour. When the Punjab police commission (1961-62) sought the views of different state governments on the induction of women into the police, the then chief secretary and inspector general of police, Tamil Nadu, stated that the recruitment of women in the police would be unwise because they are not suited to the tough requirements of the job. However, changes in social conditions, the increasing involvement of women in crime either as accused or victim, growing juvenile delinquency and domestic violence necessitated employment of women in greater numbers in the police. Although women have now become an integral part of the police forces in the world, their numbers remain poor.
In India, according to the latest statistics of the home ministry, women constitute 5.3 per cent of the country’s police forces. Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Chandigarh have a relatively better representation of women in the police. In 1997, the authorities in Tamil Nadu took advantage of the labour legislation to ensure that 33 per cent of the new police recruits were women. Female police officers comprise 29 per cent of the force in South Africa, 14 per cent in the United States of America, almost 30 per cent in Australia and 18 per cent in Canada.
International research has exploded the myth that women are unsuitable for police jobs. Women officers use less physical force, are better in defusing violent confrontations with the public and are less involved in the use of excessive force. They also possess better communication skills than their male counterparts and are better able to elicit the public’s cooperation and trust. Similar research by a team of the London Metropolitan Police found that there is a tangible difference among male and female officers in their functions in patrol duties, in their response to violent confrontations and in their commitment to law enforcement.
Another benefit of having female police officers is that they respond more effectively to violence against women. In some respects, women are better suited to police work than men. It is estimated that 80 per cent of policing involves non-criminal or service functions. In India, many of the para-military forces are now inducting female personnel.
In a study on the induction of women in para-military forces, a former director general of the Gujarat police has highlighted some of the problems women trainees face in police training colleges. Many male instructors in training institutions are gender insensitive and use rough and abusive language which demoralizes the trainees. The paucity of female instructors is another problem. He also found that in many training institutions the focus is on male trainees and the women do not get adequate attention. In some states, women trainees are given unnecessary concessions with regard to outdoor exercises.
However, the representation of women in the police continues to be low. There are various reasons for this. Women with the requisite skill and calibre will choose policing as a career if the environment within the organization is congenial and woman-friendly. Very often it is not so. At present, women police officers are kept away from core police functions and are given inconsequential jobs. Instead of confining their roles to soft desk jobs and investigation of cases of dowry death, rape and harassment only, women police officers could be assigned other important general duties. It has been found that women officers in charge of districts, subdivisions and zones have acquitted themselves very creditably. India’s landmark decision in 2006 to send a contingent of woman police officers to Liberia to assist the United Nations peacekeeping operations was a correct move which sent a message to many countries about the need for women police officers.
Policewomen confront some typical challenges. First, the lack of appreciation from their male counterparts. Research has shown that women in the police are not readily accepted by their male peers or superiors. They are viewed with scepticism by their male colleagues, for they consider women unreliable for tough assignments. Women police officers face this problem in different countries of the world. The public is more positive and welcome their presence. Second, the problem of sexual harassment. It is not only verbal but also physical harassment that women police officers face. Brown’s comparative study on Australian, US and British women police officers unveiled that 38 per cent of Australian and British police officers and 57 per cent of US police officers were exposed to sexual harassment. There are two forms of sexual harassment. One, overt harassment directed at particular individuals. The other is the hostile work environment that creates a situation of sexual harassment. Very often these two go side by side and one leads to the other. In India, no comprehensive research has been done on sexual harassment in the police but there are volumes of anecdotal evidence regarding sexual harassment, particularly with reference to constables in training institutions. The common response of women employees is either to ignore the harassment or to avoid the situation in which such harassment occurs. Often, the victims are reluctant to make a formal complaint as they hold less powerful positions than the harassers and fear retaliation. Even women officers ostracize colleagues who complain of harassment. Interaction with women officers of subordinate ranks during training programmes reveals that many of them are unaware of the Vishakha guidelines and do not know of the complaint bodies, if any, which the police authorities are mandated to set up.
Women police officers, because of their limited strength, try to ape their male colleagues and seek to acquire a rough and tough image in order to be accepted in a male dominated profession. This is self defeating. Their presence is meant to humanize the police force and add a different viewpoint to professional policing and not add to its macho image. Policewomen need to attain professional excellence that would automatically change gender stereotypes and make them important players in decision-making, career planning and management in the police.