On November 2, 1974, cheers rent the air as sub-inspector A.V. Usha marched past at the head of an exclusive contingent of 20 women constables at the Rajarathinam Stadium in Chennai. That was the first ever all women’s wing in the Chennai City Police created a year earlier by the Tamil Nadu government headed by M. Karunanidhi.
In the years to follow, such women’s police contingents sprang up across the State.
A new chapter in policing was heralded in the country in 1992 when Chief Minister Jayalalithaa declared open the first All Women Police Station (AWPS) at Chennai’s Thousand Lights Police Station. It was managed by an inspector, three sub-inspectors, six head constables and 24 constables. Its objective was to encourage women to report cases of crime and harassment, which they would find difficult to narrate to a male officer.
“In those days, a police station was considered not a good place for women to visit,” recalled former Director-General of Police (DGP) Thilagavathi, the first woman IPS officer from Tamil Nadu. “There were umpteen number of laws for women but they had no knowledge of them or how to use them. To encourage women to come forward to seek redress for their complaints, the AWPS was launched,” she said, adding the initiative paid off. “Its impact is seen from more cases of crime against women and children being reported. It is evident that people were encouraged to report such abuses. The results are good, through there may be random discrepancies,” she said.
Thirty years down the line, Tamil Nadu has 222 AWPSs (20 established recently), including 31 in Chennai, and the model has been replicated elsewhere in the country, albeit in limited numbers.
The number of women police personnel in the State has also expanded to over 20,000, including many senior IPS officers handling sensitive assignments.
“To be precise, 20,859 women police personnel are on the rolls in the State’s 1.2 lakh-odd police force. Their cutting-edge contribution is significant and they address the issues faced by women, who are at the receiving end of justice,” said Director-General of Police C Sylendra Babu.
“Our principle is that for every sub-division, there has to be an AWPS, because the demand from the public is huge. For example, last year, even though part of the year was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, 75,464 persons, mostly women, had given complaints (including matrimonial disputes) at the AWPSs. Interestingly, the issues faced by 72,428 complainants were redressed through counselling. In a court of law, they would have dragged on or might have ended in divorce,” said Mr Babu.
These AWPSs have ‘May I help You counters’ to deal with people politely. The personnel handle serious crimes against women and children, such as rape, molestation, abduction, dowry deaths, cruelty by husband/relatives, sexual harassment cases booked under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Women Harassment Act and POCSO Act cases.
The DGP insisted the AWPS personnel do a highly professional work, including pursuing prosecution in a court of law.
“The inspector of police or the sub-inspector will represent the victim,” he said, adding that they have ensured substantial convictions in criminal cases. A case in point is the sexual abuse of 11-year-old hearing-impaired girl in an apartment in Chennai, in which the AWPS personnel secured conviction for 15 of the accused in a fast-track mode recently.
The AWPS handles a sizeable number of POCSO Act cases — 239 in 2020 and 435 in 2021. This year, the number has reached more than 120 in Chennai.
The personnel also conduct awareness campaigns in schools and colleges educating children to report about sexual abuse or inappropriate behaviour to teachers and parents or contact the police, noted C Shyamala Devi, Deputy Commissioner of Police (Crime against Women and Children), Greater Chennai City Police. A Pink Patrol comprising women personnel is also being deployed.
The AWPSs, however, do have their share of criticism. There have been complaints that the personnel conduct kangaroo panchayats in the name of “counselling” and “compromise” to particularly settle matrimonial disputes or even in some dowry harassment cases. There is also a view that the concept may have “outlived” its purpose as women personnel now play a much larger role in all wings of the police.
However, senior officers insist cases of ‘settlements’ outside the purview of law are only stray and do not reflect the reality.