Over the years, India’s justice delivery system has witnessed several path breaking and trailblazing women lawyers and judges who have etched their names in history. But just like the deficits in India’s capacity to deliver justice, gender imbalance is plaguing the four pillars of justice- judiciary, police, prisons and legal aid. The recently released India Justice Report 2020 shows us the grim reality of the glass ceiling for women in justice.
The report analyses India’s structural and financial capacity to deliver justice, using the latest available government data. It does so by ranking states based on identified parameters like infrastructure, budget allocations, work load, vacancies etc. but most importantly, on gender diversity. These rankings are across 4 pillars: Police, Prisons, Judiciary and Legal Aid. Let’s look at the status of women in each one of these:
Women representation in India’s police is abysmal. Most states have set a target of achieving 33% women representation in their police forces, however, there are still eight states with no such targets. Tamil Nadu is the only state to have reduced its target from 33 to 30% since 2017. Bihar stands out with the highest target at 38%. However, if we look at actual numbers, the national average for women representation is 10% (a marginal increase from 7% in 2017).
But these numbers hide more than they reveal. For instance, though Bihar has the highest reservation quota for women, only 6% women are at the higher officer level. In Himachal, this number is 5%. This is the problem of the glass ceiling; an invisible barrier that is preventing women from rising beyond a certain level in India’s police forces.
The report also shows us that most states and union territories are likely to take more than 100 years to see a strengthened women police force.
Similar to the police force policy, even in prisons, the set standard of women working in prisons is 33%. None of the 18 states surveyed are close to meeting this number. The national average of women representation under this pillar, divided into officers, cadre staff, correctional staff, and medical staff, is 13%. The report shows us that though most states and UTs have made steady progress, women representation has in fact fallen in Uttarakhand, Delhi and Goa. In Delhi, the women staff in prisons fell from 15 to 13 per cent. Uttarakhand (3 percent) and Goa (2 percent) have the lowest shares of women working in prisons.
It’s shocking to read these numbers while knowing that Indian jails constantly remain under-staffed. Due to the ambiguity of laws and lack of uniformity relating to prisons, there continues to be limited female staff in prisons. This often leads to male staff becoming responsible for female prisoners which is highly undesirable. Structural exclusions within prisons makes female prisoners from marginalised communities extremely vulnerable.
On average, the share of women judges in subordinate courts has risen from 28 per cent to 30 percent. While one in three judges in the subordinate courts is a woman, in the high courts, only one in nine judges is a woman. For instance, Goa has the largest share of women in their subordinate courts (72%) but only 13% in High Courts. Thus, the glass ceiling remains intact.
According to the report, the marginal improvement in gender diversity in High Courts in comparison to 2019, took place in three states namely: Jammu and Kashmir (15 percentage points), Chhattisgarh (14 percentage points), and Himachal Pradesh (11 percentage points). Previously, none of the three states had a woman judge in the state’s high court.
Unfortunately on the other end of the spectrum, states like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh do not show much improvement. In fact the largest fall from the previous year of 6.3 percentage points was in Bihar. It’s not a shocker that Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have the worst justice system in India. While Uttar Pradesh stands at the bottom of the barrel, Bihar ranks number 17, in terms of justice delivery.
Traditional judicial adjudication is a very expensive process and the provision of legal aid makes the law and legal services accessible to the poor. It remains necessary to uphold human rights and equality.
Unfortunately, Indian women panel lawyers (who render free legal services to the needy) and paralegals (trained in subsidiary legal matters) are least heard of in this domain of legal aid. The presence of a large number of women among legal services providers is also important for reaching out to a section that traditionally faces sociocultural barriers in accessing legal services.Under India’s Legal Aid law, there should be a compulsory paralegal volunteer to offer legal aid to file a case with the victim or the family at the police station. These intermediaries bridge the gap between the common people and the Legal Services Institutions, and the appalling shortage leads to obstruction of justice delivery.
Nationally, the share of women amongst the panel lawyers, has stagnated at 18 percent, and among paralegals at about 35 per cent this year. At nearly 73 per cent, Goa had the highest share amongst all the states while West Bengal had the lowest with just one woman out of every five paralegals.
The glass ceiling for women is not shocking, considering how abysmal women’s participation in the labour force is (20.7 percent in 2019). On top of that, the patriarchal structures make the glass ceiling inevitable. But there are solutions:
- Domestic workload is one of the biggest reasons why women do not participate in the labour force. Reducing this burden by changing our attitudes towards domestic work being a woman’s responsibility would go a long way in increasing participation.
- With increased female representation in higher level positions, gender discrimination and bias would also significantly reduce. Women would be incharge of making important decisions of national significance which would inspire other women to join the justice workforce.
- Stronger and autonomous harassment/internal complaints committee bodies need to exist to ensure that women feel safe and comfortable with working in the 4 justice pillars that are primarily dominated by men.
- A more gender diverse justice workforce would not just mean more women in courts, police stations and legal aid clinics, but would increase the willingness of other women to seek justice.
The spin offs of shattering the glass ceiling for women in justice are countless.
Read more: Higher Education Reforms in India
The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.