The Current

'Change is slow': Female superintendent of police in India tackles sexual violence and harassment

Rema Rajeshwari is a rare figure in a country where women make up only 7 per cent of police officers, and she’s at the forefront of pushing change in how the country deals with sexual violence against women.
Rema Rajeshwari is championing the rights of women in India, which she describes as a deeply patriarchal culture. “The society needs to own it up and they need to educate their boys to be responsible towards a woman.” (Rema Rajeshwari)
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Rema Rajeshwari is a female superintendent of police in the Indian the state of Telangana — a rare figure in a country where women make up only 7 per cent of police officers, and 2 per cent of those in police leadership positions.

And she's at the forefront of pushing change in how the country deals with sexual violence against women.

The case of Jyoti Singh, the New Delhi woman whose death after a brutal gang rape on a bus sparked outrage across the country — and the world — in 2012, brought issues of sexual violence to the forefront in India.

"This was the first time that huge media coverage was given to an incident of sexual assault," Rajeshwari tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. "Until that point in India, talking about sex or sexual crimes was a taboo. This was a turning point."

Activists hold placards protesting the rapists of Delhi student, Jyoti Sing. (NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)

In the aftermath of Singh's death, a government-commissioned panel recommended changes to the criminal code — including a new amendment imposing jail sentences on police officers who fail to register rape complaints.

Rajeshwari says that most of her male colleagues are "sensitive enough" to issues of violence against women, but that the problems stem from the attitudes of society more broadly.

"If you look at the societal fabric of India, it's still patriarchical and male dominated," says Rajeshwari. "So all these police officers come from the same society."

Rajeshwari says that in the last year, the number of reported crimes against women in India rose by 2.9 per cent — and the number of reported rapes went up by 12.4 per cent. But she says that this is because more women are feeling brave enough to report the crimes.



Rajeshwari says that in rural areas, there is a stigma around women even going to speak to the police.

"If they see a woman going to the police station, it is seen as a taboo," she says. "There is a social stigma attached to a woman who ends up at a police station, either as a victim or as an accused."

Rajeshwari is sending officers out to rural communities to gain the confidence of local leaders and change their attitudes about women reporting crimes to police.

Rajeshwari was also involved with launching what are called "SHE Teams," groups of specially trained officers in Telangana state, to target street harassment of women. The aggressive cat-calling, groping, and unwanted touching is called "eve teasing" in India.

The officers are on the streets gathering evidence to arrest men engaged in this activity, meaning that women don't have to report the crimes themselves.

Rajeshwari says the harassment won’t stop until social attitudes change. (Rema Rajeshwari)

Rajeshwari says "eve teasing" wasn't considered a crime in India until recently — and says Bollywood movies are partly to blame.

"Most of the movies have a very common narrative, which is a persistent pursuit of a female lead, as long as she falls for the male lead," she says. "And he can resort to anything, he can resort to stalking her, harassing her, until she falls for him."

The "SHE Teams" registered 800 cases in their first six months. But Rajeshwari says the harassment won't stop until social attitudes change.

"I have been championing for the cause to call for a collective social responsibility, because keeping a woman safe on the street is not the responsibility for law enforcement alone," says Rajeshwari. "The society needs to own it up and they need to educate their boys to be responsible towards a woman."

This extends to stalking as well, says Rajeshwari, which until recently was treated as a petty crime in India's criminal justice system.

"When a woman refuses the advances of a man or refuses to accept his demand for marriage, there have been cases where they just go and throw acid on her face because the man doesn't want her to find another man or get married to anybody but him," says Rajeshwari.

But she says that taboos around talking about stalking are fading as well.

Fighting the mindset of society is a huge battle for every woman in uniform

After Jyoti Singh's death, the government-commissioned panel recommended making non-consensual sex in a marriage a crime —  but the Indian government has rejected this, saying accusation of marital rape could be used to harass men.

Rajeshwari can't take an official stand on the matter, as a member of the police force. But she personally believes that police should give a case by case consideration in accusations of marital rape and be able to take a strong stand.

"Because in India, a majority of the women are financially dependent on a man," she says. "You cannot expect that a woman who is going through marital rape will be able to report a crime, even if she is going through it for many years."

Though Rajeshwari is seeing changes in her society, she says "change is slow." But she will keep pushing on.

"Fighting the mindset of society is a huge battle for every woman in uniform," she says. "I have a responsibility to leave a legacy for the women who are going to join the force in the future."

The segment was produced by The Current's Lara O'Brien and Nazim Baksh. 

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.