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Violence Against Women , World

Rebels With A Cause: The All Female Motorbike Squads Tackling India’s Rape Problem

by Louise DonovanJun 26, 2018

This article was originally published in ELLE.

Once Nirmala notices him, she springs into action. Sat on the wall outside a busy shopping mall in Jaipur, north India, he looks so ordinary: rucksack slung over one shoulder, a pair of office-ready grey trousers. But now panic begins to wash over his face. Joined by three fellow policewoman, Nirmala closes in.

‘Does she look like a child to you?’ asks Nirmala, anger bubbling up in her voice.

Another officer, Premlata, takes the man by his arm and escorts him to Gaurav Tower police station, just across the road. The room is small – only a bed, a fan and a small desk fit inside. The shutters are wide open but the window is barricaded with metal bars.

He tries to apologise, but it’s too late.

‘When you harass a girl, do you realise how much it disturbs her mind?’ questions Nirmala.

In any other circumstance, this man might have walked free. He appeared silently behind a woman, tapped her on the shoulder and offered her a balloon. He badgered her, wouldn’t leave her alone, but nothing that bad happened, right? It’s better to avoid making a scene, right?

Not today. And not with Jaipur’s all-female police squad on duty.

‘It doesn’t matter – if you’re troubling women, then you’re doing something wrong,’ says Premlata. ‘If we take a step the first time something happens, such incidents won’t happen again.’

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Jhooma, 29, and Premlata, 35, during their patrolling duty in Jaipur.

She and Nirmala are two of 52 policewomen who patrol the streets protecting women, preventing crimes like harassment (known colloquially as ‘eve-teasing’), rape, molestation and assault. No matter how big or small, every such crime against women is taken seriously.

But they’re not only an all-female squad: these women are mounted bikers. In pairs, they zig-zag across the city on motorbikes, interrupting crime when they see it taking place.

‘We’re on the road in direct touch with the women – and we can take direct action for them,’ explains Nirmala. ‘The cases we register are handled by the police station no matter what. So the power is in our hands. If you’ve harassed a women in anyway, you will be arrested.’

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Nirmala Lakhera, 42, at her home in Jaipur.

A woman is raped in India every 13 minutes. In 2016, six women were gang-raped every day; a bride was murdered for dowry every 69 minutes.

Five years after the infamous Delhi-gang rape, in which 23-year-old Jyoti Singh died after being attacked by six men on a bus, women say India is clearly still unsafe. Read any newspaper or website and it’s a heartbreakingly endless stream of abuse – stories pour out with shocking fervour, the latest ‘brutal’ rape dissected and discussed so much the violence becomes almost normalised.

In recent months, a series of cases shocked the country once again. From the rape, torture and murder of an eight-year-old girl in the state of Jammu to two teenage girls who were raped then set on fire in Jharkhand – the issue of sexual violence is firmly back on the national agenda.

As with the events six years ago, the attacks have given rise to protests . In April, thousands of people took to the streets all over India and prompted demands for stricter rape laws.

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Protests near Parliament Street, Delhi demanding justice for the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua.

So what, if anything, is the solution? Police forces across the country are hoping they’ve found an answer: all-female squads. Launched in New Delhi, Jaipur and Udaipur, they’re part of an effort to tackle incidences of sexual assault.

In Delhi, the ‘Raftaar’ (or ‘Speed’) squad have been armed with guns, pepper spray, stun guns and body cameras, and guard crowded areas of the city on motorbikes (they can zip down narrow streets quickly where sexual assault often takes place).

Launched in May 2017, the pioneering unit in Jaipur, Rajasthan, patrols areas where women are more likely to be, such as bus stops, universities and parks. Each woman on the squad completed a month-long training programme, which included martial arts, fitness, meditation, learning sections of the law needed in the field and horse-riding.

‘We knew the lady patrolling units might face men bigger than them and it could act as psychological deterrent,’ explains Gaurav Srivastava, the Additional Commissioner of Police spearheading the project. ‘So the purpose of the horse riding was to show them with the right kind of approach and mindset you can control something even more powerful than yourself.’

A WOMAN IS RAPED IN INDIA EVERY 13 MINUTES. IN 2016, SIX WOMEN WERE GANG-RAPED EVERY DAY

Dressed in a blue two-piece, with a baton hanging loosely off their back pocket, the women look intimidating– and that’s entirely the point. The squads originally wore khaki uniforms, like the rest of police in Rajasthan, but were swapped out for a darker tone six months later. In a society dominated by men, the women needed a way to stand out – to show everyone they meant business.

‘Their appearance is quite awe-inspiring,’ says Srivastava, ‘and their mere presence in public is both a deterrence and a distraction for offenders.’

28-year-old Jhooma Meena agrees. She joined the police force nine years ago.

‘When I wear the uniform, I become confident,’ she says. ‘Before this I would have been afraid to go outside, I would have been scared and nervous to leave my house. Now there’s no reluctance or fear. Men don’t stare at us. When they see us in the uniform, they don’t look at us in the wrong way.’

Not only do the all-female squads prevent harassment from taking place, but their literal presence on the street reassures women. Rape still carries a huge stigma in India – many women are scared to report a crime due to the mostly male police force. Many more deal with officers who don’t take sexual assault crimes seriously.

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Jhooma Meena, 29, a member of the lady patrol unit

‘I think women do feel more comfortable approaching us and sharing their problems,’ says Nirmala.

In the first 30 days, Jaipur’s squad received the highest numbers of sexual harassment complaints. One year later, the team have dealt with 256 incidences, nearly one quarter of which lead to arrests.

So far, Jaipur locals seem happy with the police’s effort to protect women.

‘We feel safe when we see the female patrols around,’ says 32-year-old Sheetal Rathore, who watched the man being carted off outside the shopping mall. Her 3-year-daughter, Devanshe, watched the whole thing, too.

‘Women understand the problem more than men but you can’t really trust anyone,’ she continues. ‘I always leave the house with someone – like my husband or brother – because men won’t spare me because I’m married. These people don’t even spare little girls.’

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