For Jhanak Meelapir, a 22-year-old primary school teacher, the “most exciting thing” about her new role is that she will get to wear sports shoes with her salwar-kameez. “If I find anyone teasing girls in my village, I can chase them,” she says.
Jhanak is one of 1,041 women from villages surrounding Ahmedabad and Surat who have been undergoing training on gender issues, self-defence and basic police work since November at the rural police headquarters.
By the end of this month, they will take charge as Mahila Police Volunteers (MPVs), marking a first in the state and acting as a bridge between victims of crimes against women in their villages and police, ensuring that cases are reported and lodged.
“They taught us about understanding the issues that women face and how to deal with them. A lot of it is new to me,” says Jhanak, a graduate in Gujarati and the “only educated woman” from Yubapur village in Dhandhuka teshil, over 100 km from Ahmedabad city.
This month also marks the completion of a year since the MPV project was launched by Gujarat’s departments of Home, and Women and Child Welfare (WCWD).
“We identified areas to launch the initiative and selected one woman from every village in those areas after inviting applications. We completed one round of recruitment in November-December last year and another in January-February this year,” says Jigisha Patel, regional coordinator at the WCWD’s Gender Resource Centre.
According to Patel, candidates were selected by committees of 10 members each that were formed in every village identified, including social health workers, the village head and the school teacher.
“In some villages, we got a list of names from which we selected the candidate based on the criteria that she has to be Class 12-pass, and over 21 years old with no criminal record. In villages that are Muslim-dominated, the volunteer is a Muslim… similarly in villages with a large Dalit population, a Dalit representative was chosen,” she says.
Originally conceived by the Union Ministry of Women & Child Development, MPV is a joint initiative with the Union Ministry of Home Affairs under the Nirbhaya fund, set up after the 2012 gangrape in Delhi. According to officials, Gujarat is the second state after Haryana to have MPVs in villages.
“We selected the rural districts of Ahmedabad and Surat because they are developed as compared to the others. Our idea is to use available levels of education and awareness, and pair it with the pilot project so that we can replicate it,” says R V Asari, SP, Ahmedabad Rural.
“The idea is to have one police volunteer from each village. The candidates are paid Rs 1,000 per month. After training, they will be able to attend panchayat meetings and intervene in cases discussed. They will also go on rounds in the village regularly and speak to other women,” says Asari.
“Right now, we are at a very basic level. We are training the women to first get over their own inhibitions and understand their rights,” he says.
Echoing the police officer’s views, 33-year-old Gita Dabhi from Bavla village near Ahmedabad says becoming a police volunteer has given her dignity and respect.
“From the time people in my home and village got to know about my training, they respect me more. In Bavla, there are many cases of women being beaten up by their husbands. During training, we were told that women think it is the right of husbands to hit them, and it is true. In my village, at least, I hope to ensure that women understand that they are not there to be beaten up by their husbands,” says Gita, a mother of two whose husband works at a furniture shop in the city.
“Most women think their husbands hitting them is a way of showing love,” says gender expert Sejal Joshi who is among those involved on training these volunteers.
However, the enthusiasm among volunteers is also tempered with caution, given the ground reality.
“Our village has a majority of Patels and I do not belong to that community. If I have to deal with an issue in a Patel household, I will have to see how it is goes. But since I know everyone in the village, I hope there will be no problem when it comes to caste or community,” says Parvati Goswami from Manipur village who works in a medical store near Sanand.
But Parvati’s selection is already a matter of pride for the women of Manipur.
“Parvatiben is like a part of our family and we will find it easier to talk to her than going to police. When we say the matter is with police, people in the village act as if it’s something wrong. If there is a person from the village who can help with women’s issues, it is better,” says Varsha Katvada, a 33-year-old from the village.
As part of this initiative, Gujarat police and the WCWD plan to recruit 474 women from villages around Ahmedabad of which they have selected 245. For the rural areas surrounding Surat, the target is 567 of which 365 have been recruited.
Given the response, the government plans to roll out the initiative in other areas by the end of 2018. “We received Rs 127 crore of which 60 per cent is from the central government and 40 per cent from the state. The money has already been dispatched to the two centres where we have started the programme,” says Patel of the WCWD.
On the ground, meanwhile, change is already here. Says Jhanak, the school teacher, “If someone stares at me now, I stare back at them so that they know I am not scared. I want all the women in my village to understand that.”