Sexual harassment does exist within police departments across the country, thanks to a largely ineffective complaints redressal mechanism. This is the uncomfortable truth many women police officers admit to and have to live with. Women cops at the higher ranks at least know the law, but those at the constabulary level don’t seem to be aware of the “solutions” they have “access” to.

Kiran Bedi, India’s first woman IPS officer, said, “Sexual harassment does exist in police departments. If anyone argues that it is a myth, it would be a lie. How a woman deals with the situation is a choice she has to make and she can’t be judged for it because she has to calculate a lot of things before she decides to take a step against it.”

Police departments, like any other employer, are duty-bound to implement their obligations under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 that seeks to protect women from sexual harassment at their place of work.

Aditi Datta, Senior Programme Officer, Police Reforms Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), said: “The law has come into effect less than two years ago, so the levels of implementation have not been formally examined. What makes things more difficult is that sexual harassment within police epartments is not readily or easily acknowledged. Many claim it simply does not exist. Senior leaders, in particular, have always been unwilling to acknowledge and/or share information about the problem.”

However, a CHRI survey on “Women police in South Asia 2015” claims that in answers to face-to-face questions and in focus groups with junior ranks where the atmosphere was more candid, women police officers openly admitted to harassment saying things like, “it’s very rampant in police departments”, “sexual harassment is an issue and it is suppressed”, and “sexual harassment of women at the workplace is considered normal in the police. The general attitude is that if you have come to work, you have to learn to bear with it.”

In Kerala and Haryana, the CHRI survey revealed that only five out of 66 respondents (7.5%) said they had faced sexual harassment, and 60 (91%) said they had not. According to the survey, one of factors behind a higher number of unreported cases is the high levels of ignorance about where or how to complain. In Kerala and Haryana, 18 out of 66 (27.3%) of respondents did not know they could complain about harassment. The survey report said, “It is difficult to pinpoint whether this is because the structures have not been established or there is a lack of awareness about them. In either case, it is problematic since there are obligations in the Act for employers to engage in education programmes and the lack of knowledge displayed would seem to indicate that this is not taking place. The most common views expressed as to why it is not reported were that the woman would be identified as a problem.”

Datta said, “Every district has an Internal Complaints Committee (ICI) where a police woman can file a complaint against the perpetrator. There is a Central Internal Complaints Committee (CICC) at the headquarters level as well. But these committees exist only on paper. None of their duties are fulfilled, we are not even aware who is heading these committees. In every police station, there should be a poster that spells out all the rights and duties of a police officer. Take a random visit to your nearest police station and you can see for yourself if there is any such thing on the wall.”

However, Bedi said, “Women in police now generally know about the legal procedure that they can opt for if they want to report harassment. But often before reporting it, she will analyse if it is a battle that she can win or lose. Maybe she’ll not go for a legal action against the perpetrator and would want to settle the matter in another way. A lot has to be put on the line to take a stand in such cases. Her whole career can be compromised. If she takes the fight head-on, the sexual harassment might stop, but there are always chances of being victimised by indirect bullying.”

“It is definitely wrong in the sense that the perpetrator may take on another victim. But in the department, things don’t stay hidden. They do get known. Every cop in the department has a reputation that precedes him. This is just like a corrupt man’s case; he may or may not be caught, but he will ‘acquire’ the ill-repute of a corrupt man. In a police department, all cops are like an open book. People know if a man has a weakness for women or wine, and in the long run, the bad reputation catches up with his acts. Unless the harassment is severe, it is unlikely to come out in public. Cops know too well that this isn’t something that they can escape with even if the media or the public does not know about it,” said Bedi.

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