Poor police response to vulnerable women who approach the police stations with complaints of being branded as witch

014The study, “Witch Branding and Police Response”, prepared by Gujarat-based NGO ANANDI and supported by Oxfam India, was undertaken during an awareness campaign on witch branding as a form of gender-based violence. It was carried out in  Panchmahals, Dahod and Mahisagar districts of Gujarat following the office of the District Superintendent of Police (DSP) collaborating with ANANDI and Devgadh Mahila Sangathan in the second half of 2013, when the awareness programme was still on. The ANANDI team accessed police records of the past two years, which became the basis of the study. Excerpts:

In Panchamahaals, we shortlisted two blocks where ANANDI has been working i.e. Shehera and Ghogamba, and one other block, Morva, was selected as this block had the highest number of cases recorded in the police stations. In Dahod two blocks were selected — Devgadh Baria and Dhanpur — both of which are ANANDI’s intervention blocks. Since Mahisagara new district carved out of Panchmahaals and Kheda, we included the two blocks which were earlier part of Panchmahals but are now part of the new district, i.e. Santrampur and Kadana. In all, cases were identified from seven blocks across three districts in Gujarat.

In each blocks three types of cases are listing with the police station:

  1. Cases listed under A register – cases that are referred to the police station by their superior office,
  2. Case listed under B register cases that are registered directly at the police station, and
  3. A case in which an FIR has been lodged.

Police response

Five police stations of five blocks were covered under the study in Panchmahals district and in all 203 cases were registered since 2011. In this district in the year 2011 there were no FIRs filed, but we see that from the year 2012 the number of FIRs being filed has increased, but at the same time the overall complaints registered has decreased. In this district 86% of the women who came to the police station were able to record their complaints, and in less than 9% of the cases the women had to approach the higher authorities to get their complaints lodged. Only in 5% of the cases the FIRs have been lodged. Going by the usual trend, it is most likely that in those cases where the FIR has been file or when registered under A register, investigation procedures have been taken up more systematically than when filed in the B register.

Mahisagar was carved out as a district as recently as of August 15, 2013 and has some of the blocks previously under the district of Panchmahaals. Three police stations in three blocks were covered under the study. There have been no FIRs in the past two years on the matter of witch branding in Mahisagar district. Nearly all the cases have been registered at the police station without the intervention of the higher authorities.

The maximum number of police stations covered under the study fall in Dahod district, and consequently the number of cases is also the highest. In Devgadh Baria block ANANDI has worked for over a decade. We find that in 2011 two FIRs have been filed with the police station. In none of the other blocks in the year 2011 did we find any FIRs registered by the police. The total number of cases, i.e.60, recorded at Devgadh Baria is also the highest, which can be attributed to the longstanding work on the issue being done by ANANDI and Devgadh Mahila Sangathan.

During the period from January 2011 to July 2013, of all the three districts covered under the study the research team was able to identify 494 cases out of which

  1. The total number of cases listed under A register are 86;
  2. the total number of cases listed under B register are 387; and
  3. the total number of cases where a FIR was lodged is 21.

Of the total number of cases 78% have been registered when the women have approached the local police stations. This points to the fact that women are reaching out the police stations to record the violence they face and are no longer accepting it as mere superstition. The three year data indicates that only 4% of the complaints are registered as FIRs, pointing to the extremely low importance that the police accords to the violence that these women face when branded as a witch.

Going by the numbers, women have approached higher authorities to get their complaint registered but not all of the A register cases have been converted into FIRs. One can therefore infer that women survivors of violence have stepped out of their homes and villages and gone right up to a district police office to bring to notice the violence they are facing when branded as a witch. However, the police seem to have fallen short in taking adequate steps to bring justice to these women. In cases of complaints noted as A register, the local police staff would make a visit to the home, or call the accused and the complainant to the police station and file a report that is sent to the higher authority. To that limited extent one can say that A register cases get better attention than the B register cases.

Profile of the sample

Twenty one cases were identified, out of which the research team could meet 18 women – nine ST, seven OBC, and two SC. Of the 18 cases, 17 were married and living with their families. This data was not easily available from the records made available to us and the status had to be inferred from the description given in the registers. In some they mentioned the complainant as widow of the deceased husband, in some cases they mentioned her name as ‘ wife of and/or daughter of’, and in some cases this was simply not mentioned. Even where it was recorded there was a mismatch between the police records of the marital status and the actual status of the women when we met them.

Seventeen out of 18 women reported that they had the support of the family in registering the case. In many cases, the husbands had accompanied the women. This is likely due to the fact that these are derived from the police records, and single women are more likely to be afraid of going to the police station to register a case on their own. The high number of married women filing cases implies that actually these women were able to draw upon the family support to go and report to the police station which is otherwise perceived as a hostile place.

Majority of the women are above the age of 35, and this needs to be understood in the local context, where marriages take place as early as 13-14 years of age. This data, when seen along with the marital status data, points to the fact that women who have been branded as witches have had a considerable number of years of family life.

The sample cases fall within the normal pattern of children per family for the region and therefore can be considered representative (childless two, five women had two children each, and 11 women had more than two children). Earlier studies have indicated that not having a child or a male or heir is linked to women being branded as a witch. We found that in one of the cases the woman was branded as a witch by her husband’s uncle as they wanted to get her husband discredited and make him ineligible to inherit the land that her father-in-law owned. In this case the husband was an adopted son and hence his uncles used the ‘tool’ of witch branding to ostracize him.

Occupations that the sample cases follow are similar to that of the population of women in the tribal districts. Most tribal families own some piece of land which provides for subsistence living for a few months in the year and several tribal families migrate out for work.

Four respondents did not give details of their experience of violence and the negative impact on their livelihoods and survival. An equal number of respondents mentioned that they were displaced from their own land as they were seen as causing threat for the family members and their ability to cultivate their own land. Three respondents said that due to the physical abuse and other forms of violence which was meted out to her and other male members of family, they were unable to undertake agricultural work.

Type of complaints

Of the 18 cases, the maximum numbers of complaints (eight) have been listed under the B register. Two are registered under both A and B register, five under A register, and three as FIRs. During the interactions with the women and the police it emerged that an FIR is lodged when there are external visible injury marks on the complainant, or when there has been an attack on the property, or a case of violence on the relatives of the women who have been branded as a witch.

We learnt during the course of this study that the common causes for being branded as a witch in these the 18 cases was related to illness, death of family members or livestock, a land dispute, to settle old family feuds, in cases of refusal of sexual advances, and to filing of cross complaints. However, none of these details were recorded in the police complaints; and we learnt of these reasons from the women. This again indicates that there is a disconnect between the violence that women are experiencing and the limited way in which it is being captured in the police records.

Police and panch process

Out of the 18 cases eight women had either approached the panch, the traditional dispute resolution mechanism of their community prevalent among both the tribal and non-tribal community, or were engaged in the panch simultaneously. In seven cases there was no definite response about the role of the panch and in two cases there was clearly no involvement of the panch. Of the eight cases where the panch was involved in four instances the accused did not follow the ruling and continued to harass the women; in two cases no decision was arrived at and in two cases they were able to arrive at a solution that was acceptable to both the woman and the accused.

This points to the shift that seems to be taking place where in there is an increasing effort to use the rule of law. One could also consider this to be a kind of ‘tipping point’ towards a decisive shift in the use of the formal legal procedures to deal with witch branding. One could say that there is a growing understanding among the women that relying only on the traditional redressal system leaves them with few chances of survival and support.

Out of the total 18 cases, in three cases women reported that they were satisfied with the police action as the police had either arrested the accused or because the police action had forced the accused to come to the arbitration process of the panch.

In the instances where the women were not satisfied with the police the reasons they listed were as follows:

  • They did not file an FIR and instead only registered a general complaint.
  • There was no cognizance of the loss of dignity being faced by the women on account of witch branding
  • The police unable to provide her any protection when she goes back to the same Circumstances
  • The woman was coerced into giving her thumb impression on a piece of paper, which she was unable to read
  • No action was taken on the complaint filed by the woman
  • The accused got bail and is free and she fears further harassment
  • Police took money from the complainant and did not take any action in the case
  • Had to approach the court to gether complaint registered.

Visits to the police station

In order to understand how responsive the police are, the question about number of visits to the police station was posed to the women. Each time these women go to the police station it is most likely that they would have to forgo a full days wage and if she is accompanied by a family member then that person’s wage is also lost; and they would also have to incur the additional travel cost from their village to the police station.

In eight of the cases the women have reported going twice to the police station in connection with their complaint and in three cases the women reported having to go 10 times, five times and four times respectively. In other cases they had to go about three times at least.

The police also engage in arbitration to get the matter settled and this is one of the reasons for the high number of visits to the police station that the women have had to make. Some women reported going to the police station to follow up on the progress of action taken in their cases as well.

Expenses incurred

The women reported the following types and amount of expenses they had to incur with regard to the cases file:

  • Up to Rs 1,000 on travel expenses
  • Medical expenses ranging from Rs 600 to Rs 1 lakh.
  • A payment to the police.
  • Advocate fees and expenses.
  • 5% expenses when they call the panch.

These findings indicate that the women have to bear several expenses when they seek justice and for poor women dependent on wage work it is most likely that they would have to either borrow at high rates or mortgage some of her assets to raise the money. This only points to the economic hardships faced by women over and above the social and cultural ostracism they face on being branded as a witch.

Response of the court

None of the cases had come up for hearing in the cases selected for detailed interaction. The only experiences of the courts were related to seeking bail when there were cross complaints filed and the woman had to apply for bail, and in one instance when the police was registering her complaint.

Impact on social relations

For a woman, being branded as witch implies a loss in social status and dignity. The other members of her community dissociate themselves from her either because they are afraid or because the customary norms demand it. The following are the changes listed by the women in their social relations as perceived by them:

  • Unable to go the part of the village where she earlier resided for festivals or even to pay her respects during the death of any community members.
  • Husband has decided to marry again as the first wife is accused of being a witch.
  • Cannot attend the marriage functions of her immediate family members.
  • Have found it difficult to find a suitable match for their children’s marriage.

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