September 18, 2007

Policing Change: A Personal Perspective on Violence Against Women and Children

A WELL-KNOWN TV news channel in English had a Women’s Day special recently, asking the question ‘Do we still need feminism?’ As someone who has worked with the Karnataka police for the past few years on issues of violence against women and children (and is a feminist), I found it startling and disturbing, that so many participants on that talk show – including a senior woman police officer from Punjab – had no sense of the extraordinary moment of crisis we are in, as a country, as a ‘civilisation’, as a community of human beings.

India is missing from its population, over 50 million women and girl children (Census of India, 2001). ‘Missing’ because they are either killed (before birth, immediately after birth, or during their lifetime; one estimate says that five women die every day over dowry disputes) or are trafficked (for commercial sexual exploitation, labour and other activities). Fifty million is five crores, i.e. approximately the population of Karnataka; as I tell the police officers who participate in our workshops, there would be unimaginable worldwide horror if a bomb wiped out Karnataka tomorrow, but this ‘bomb’ of gender-based violence has been quietly exploding all over our country, in our homes or in a home near us, and there are very few who hear or see it. There is another ‘bomb’ that also exists: of those who are not killed, but who die many deaths in their every day living.

…What country, what civilisation, what humaneness? What future do we give ourselves, as citizens of the 21st century, if we cannot understand the depths of violence to which we subject so many of our women? Yes, we do live lives of seeming contradiction, and that should not surprise us, or be an excuse for a lack of awareness. We need to acknowledge that for many women – perhaps you and me – the India of today contains a multitude of opportunities and possibilities. But at the same time, we need to acknowledge that for many more women – perhaps the unborn child next door or the abused woman down the road — the India of today does not exist. Because they do not exist. They have been destroyed from the very landscape that is this country.

The Gender Sensitisation and People-Friendly Police Project is a joint partnership between the Karnataka State Police and UNICEF, with support from women’s and children’s organisations and committed individuals across the State. Over the past three years, we have trained over 3500 police officers, from over 500 police stations, on the issues of violence facing women and children, and the kind of sensitive, responsive policing that can help protect and support these women and children. It may seem surprising, but many of these police officers – both men and women – are able to analyse for themselves, at the end of the workshops, exactly how we are socialised into individual prejudice and structural discrimination. That it is untrue that ‘women are women’s worst enemies’; after all, a system of patriarchy which privileges male ownership and control over assets, opportunities and values can be abused by and be abusive of, both men and women, though to varying degrees. Would a mother-in-law who has freedom, mobility and self-confidence as a human being — not just as a ‘mother’ or a ‘wife’ — oppress her daughter-in-law? Does every man want to be a police officer? What if he wants to be a Bharatanatyam dancer?

Men and women can also share other values: of equality, of dignity, of respect. At birth, we did not choose our homes, our parents, our language, our caste, our religion, our names…or our bodies. How then, do we end up discriminating on the basis of these very identities as we grow older? The police officers who are willing to listen, who become more conscious of the multiple levels of discrimination and violence that women face, who are willing to change, may never have heard this definition of feminism: ‘the politics that is committed to challenge and change the systemic injustice that women face because of their sex’. Yet they are feminist in their actions, and I applaud them.

This was first published in the March (‘Women’s Day Special’) issue of Sattva, an online magazine for ‘realising equilibrium in social change’.


Anasuya Sengupta has worked for many years on issues of violence against women and children and police response, feminist advocacy and multi-generational leadership, and is passionately against fundamentalisms of all kinds. She’s from Bengaluru, but temporarily living in Berkeley. Her personal website is here and she can be contacted at anasuya[at]sanmathi[dot]org.

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