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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)