THE hegemonic institutional structure of the justice system, underlined with gender dynamics explains the hold-ups to women’s meaningful progress. Apart from the clear numeric dominance of males in the justice profession, women are subjected to multi-layered social and cultural barriers.

The representation of women in various verticals of access to justice runs in complete contravention with the representative bureaucracy theory. The framework of the criminal justice system is primarily organised around masculinity.

The norms set by a hyper-masculine sub-culture traditionally, “male-professions”, discourages women from entering and progressing in these spaces.

The India Justice Report, 2020, indicates the prevalence of same across the various pillars of justice system – cops, courts and corrections. The female composition is numeric tokenism which poses further challenges for women staff.

India needs more police-women

India saw the first woman police officer recruited in the force as late as 1972. The absence of women in the policing ecosystem for long resulted in the dominance of a male-culture. Though female recruitments are steadily increasing, the strength remains insufficient to break the culture, thus creating a vicious circle and forcing women police staff to internalise cultural stereotypes.

The Union Government recommends each police station to have at least three women Sub-Inspectors and ten women police. It has proposed establishing Investigative Units for Crimes Against Women (IUCAW) at police stations in crime-prone districts across states, with at least one-third of the investigative staff being women.

Many states have approved a 33% quota for women in their forces, and several have established all-women police stations, of which there are more than 500 in operation.

The 2012 Lok Sabha Report suggests that the boost to women in policing is crucial given their role in promoting gender sensitivity, dealing with women’s cases, and promoting a friendly behavioural sub-culture.

However, the national average percentage of women in the police is only 10%. Between 2019 and 2020, although there has been an improvement in women’s representation in policing in many states, it is concentrated in the lower ranks, reaffirming the stereotype that women are “second-class citizens” in the profession. Women represent 25% and 19% of police force in Bihar and Himachal Pradesh respectively. However, both the states experience the ubiquitous glass ceiling barrier, with only 6% (Bihar) and 5% (Himachal Pradesh) being at the officer level.

The patriarchal wall of prison administration

The same pattern is observed in the prison administration. Women account for only 13 percent of prison staff across all levels, majorly concentrated in the lower-ranking posts.

With 7,794 women prison staff, there are no women at the level of DG, DIG, or Superintendent in fourteen states.

The Model Prison Manual 2016 prescribes one lady DIG’s appointment to the Prison Headquarters to look after women prisons, staff, and prisoners in the state. It also recommends that prisons housing women inmates must have a senior female officer as part of the Grievance Redressal Committee, examining complaints in an unbiased manner.

A demographic change of the prison officer workforce by including more women officers facilitates progressive prison reforms. However, the scarcity of female staff involvement at supervisory levels often leads to male staff being responsible for female inmates, which is highly undesirable.

The staff inmate ratio for women in Uttrakhand and Uttar Pradesh is as high as 1:12. With a dire shortage of women staff, many gender-specific women inmates’ needs remain unfulfilled.

The lack of gender-sensitive employment in the prison staff falls back to the prison’s unsaid male-dominated environment.

Entering the ‘old-boys club’ of Indian Judiciary

On moving to the top of the hierarchy of the justice system, we find that the national average of 30% of women judges in the subordinate court falls sharply to 11% in the High Court indicating the higher judiciary’s glass ceiling.

Goa with the 72% women judges in its subordinate courts drops to 13% at the High Court. Since 2018, four Indian states continue to have no women judges in the higher Judiciary.

There has never been a female Chief Justice of India. Justice Fathima Beevi expressed her concerns about not having more than one or two women judges at any time in the Supreme Court.

The paltry participation of women in the Judiciary should not be mistaken as a symbol of equal representation but rather of representative tokenism.

Women’s presence in the bar and the bench enhances courts’ legitimacy, making the recourse to justice open and accessible. Women participation in judicial decision-making brings their lived social and cultural experiences to their judicial actions towards a more comprehensive and empathetic perspective. However the majority of the female judges in the lower Judiciary’s concentration signal the barriers of gender cold working conditions and the lack of supportive infrastructure to climb up the ladder.

Beyond the glass-ceiling and tokenism

The keystones of the legal justice system – equality and fairness, are best achieved through inclusiveness, diversity and representation.

The few women who are braving the justice profession are tokens, trapped in stereotypical roles and constrained by personal and professional impediments.

The glass-ceiling results from lack of belief in women’s abilities, discriminatory standards for promotion, and apparent bias against women in leadership. The justice professions traditionally meant for men, foreclose the possibility of women to prosper.

The solution lies in looking at women as human resource assets to drive reforms in the access to justice sphere.

India can achieve it by challenging the old masculine models and harbouring a feminist model of administering justice. A mere rise in numbers can address tokenism, but the glass ceiling barrier has to be independently addressed to explore gender-parity prospects in the higher ranks.

(Ritika Goyal is a student at the National University of Study and Research in Law (NUSRL), Ranchi. She is a legal researcher with Columbia Global Freedom of Expression.  Shrutika Pandey is a litigation assistant with MANASA Centre for Social Development. The views expressed are personal.)

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