Data just tabled in Parliament show that of the 16.6 lakh police personnel in India in 2011 at the constabulary level, only 93,887 — or 13.3 per cent — are women. Progress on this count has been halting in the 80 years since India’s first policewoman donned her uniform in Travancore in 1933, but the pace has picked up of late. Nevertheless, representation is uneven across States. Mizoram had no woman in its force in 2011, while Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu had the most, almost doubling their numbers in the two years since 2009. Uttar Pradesh saw a drop, with just 2,354 women personnel in 2011 of a total of 1.87 lakh. Numbers are important. The very presence of women could create an environment for women and those from weaker sections of society to access police stations with less diffidence and difficulty than would otherwise have been the case. A critical mass should be achieved by ensuring that women comprise at least 33 per cent of the constabulary.

Yet, numbers alone will not do. Women in the constabulary must get the training, support and confidence needed to put them on a par in every sense with their male counterparts. A common gender-neutral cadre needs to be created for all ranks so that promotional opportunities are evenly available. Women should be routinely and readily considered for front-line postings at cutting edge levels based on their competence and experience. Resource centres for mentoring, creating awareness about opportunities and prospects, and helping with career planning and training and coping with workplace challenges are essential. Women have a role in making up for the lack of training and sensitisation of the force in general in dealing with crimes against women. At the same time, women constables and officers should not be ghettoised into dealing only with such crimes. As the experience in many countries of the world shows — New York City had its first policewoman as early as in 1845 — there is no policing function that women cannot perform. Given the prevalence of sexist attitudes within the bureaucracy and police, an organisational response from the force is needed to enable women to realise their full potential. The Ministry of Home Affairs should set targets for individual police forces and create a mechanism to monitor female advancement. Grants should be linked to progress achieved. Integrating women in the force should become an essential component of the process of police reform in India, enabling them to become real change agents. Having more women in the force should not be seen as just an expression of the formal fulfilment of sexual equality, important though that goal is. Rather, the contemporary needs of policing also demand it.