The story so far: There are far fewer women than men in India, an ill-kept secret which reveals itself time and again through the numbers. More than 13.13 lakh girls and women went missing in the country in the three years between 2019 and 2021, per Union Home Ministry data tabled in the Parliament recently. The figures compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) found that Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Maharashtra contributed to the bulk of the cases. Madhya Pradesh held the most damning record: it failed to trace 36,104 women, per NCRB’s 2021 report.
Experts, however, note that India’s calculation of women reported missing is not wholly representative of ground realities. “Women could be eloping for inter-caste or inter-faith marriage or they might be leaving an abusive situation at home. Some families also abandon women who are disabled,” explains Professor Juhi Sidharth, an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Gender Studies at Flame University, Pune. But NCRB’s aggregate data currently doesn’t reflect these complexities.
‘Missing women’ vs ‘women reported missing’
Economist Amartya Sen in the early nineties devised the concept of “missing women” to articulate the gender bias in mortality, particularly in middle- and low-incoming nations like India and China. Women’s ratio to men was low due to two factors: skewed sex ratio at birth (due to sex-selective abortions and male preference), and excess female mortality (when women are deliberately denied adequate healthcare, education, nutrition, etc.) Mr. Sen argued more than 100 million women are simply not there as “social inequality outweighs women’s survival advantage”. The number of missing women globally has more than doubled over the past 50 years, a 2020 UNFPA report showed.
Women reported missing, however, is a different computation. The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) defines a missing person as: “Anyone whose whereabouts is unknown whatever the circumstances of disappearance. They will be considered missing until located and their well-being or otherwise established.”
NCRB in its report enumerates reasons for women going missing: “mental illness, miscommunication, misadventure, domestic violence and being a victim of a crime”, such as homicide, trafficking, sexual exploitation, child labour, and domestic work. Some of them “return soon after their disappearance without any harm having befallen them,” in cases where people are lost or leave out of their own volition. Others, who “run away from home due to unbearable conditions of abuse and maltreatment… [may] become vulnerable to trafficking, violence, drug addiction, prostitution and other risks of exploitation and involvement in crime.”
Women made up more than 68% of all persons reported missing in 2020 and 2021, per the NCRB data.
What has India done to protect women?
The government informed the Parliament of the following measures to protect women reported missing:
Enacted the Criminal Law (Amendment), Act, 2013 and the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2018 to deter sexual violence.The latter prescribesstringent penal provisions, including the death penalty, for the rape of girls below the age of 12 years.
The 2018 Act mandates that a chargesheet be filed and an investigation conducted within two months, and trials are completed in another two months.
A pan-India Emergency Response Support System with a recognised number (112) for all emergencies, with computer-aided dispatch of field resources to the location of distress. 112 replaced earlier emergency numbers: 100 for police, 108 for health (ambulance) services, 101 (fire) and women’s grievances (1090.)
A National Database on Sexual Offenders was launched to facilitate the investigation and tracking of sexual offenders across the country by law enforcement agencies.
The Ministry of Women & Child Development set up 733 One Stop Centres to aid women affected by violence and in distress. While OSCs assisted more than 6 lakh women between 2015 and 2022 (per data from the Ministry of Women and Child Development), many note that a lack of awareness and infrastructural deficiencies plague the system.
How are women reported missing in India?
NCRB, as the official measure of women who go missing, uses data from police station First Information Reports (FIRs). “While recording missing persons in the system, real motive is normally not known and becomes clear later during the investigation stage when the person is recovered. Motive is therefore not factored in the present analysis,” the NCRB states in its report. The Supreme Court guidelines mandate that a missing adult’s report is filed under section 154 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973.
Once a woman is traced, police officials take a statement and in cases of family dispute, women are likely to be left alone if they refuse to return to families. All cases of missing minors are treated as kidnappings and an FIR is filed under section 363 of the Indian Penal Code.
The data gap
In her book Whole Numbers and Half-Truths, Rukmini Sen illustrates the Achilles heel of data collection: “Official statistics often misreport non-criminal activity as crime, intentionally use wrong sections of the law to book some crimes, and significantly undercount a vast range of typically non-violent crime.”
The data around women reported missing suffers from this fallibility. A missing woman or girl is not necessarily kidnapped or abducted, for natal families file missing person reports in cases where women elope or flee from violent situations, as Prof. Sidharth and other experts pointed out. “We live in a patriarchal society”, says Prof. Sidharth, highlighting that it is rife with restrictions around women’s agency and choice. Gujarat, which per the 2020 National Crime Records Bureau data has 41,621 missing women, registers more cases due to “family disputes, elopement, failure in examination” etc., the Gujarat Police said in a tweet.
Ms. Sen gave an example of how families use criminal law to thwart women’s choices: “To prove that their daughter or sister did not choose to elope with the accused man, the complainant’s father or brother must demonstrate that she was taken against her will. Cops step in to create moving cars that abduct young women or sedative-laced cold drinks that render the ‘victim’ unconscious and unable to consent to her own escape.”
Studies by Partners for Law in Development have found that the FIRs mentioning the element of intoxication did not hold up in court. Many young women who were later traced and deposed attested to facing beatings, confinements, threats and even abortions. “There are undoubtedly crimes taking place against women here, but not the ones that are being prosecuted by the State,” Ms. Sen argued.
Secondly, NCRB uses something called the ‘principal offence rule,’ where the more severe crime is recorded to avoid duplication. If a woman is abducted/raped and murdered, the FIR will record the crime as a ‘murder’ only. Prof. Sidharth says the aggregate data, without a breakdown of the nature of violence, is a “big disadvantage” and a “big flaw in the data collection process.”
“That doesn’t paint a true picture of how many women have been raped in the country. How many crimes, and the variety of crimes faced by women have to be systematically recorded,” he says.
This practice also risks ignoring and underestimating certain violent crimes against women— such as dowry deaths, which may be bundled with murders. Moreover, evidence shows women very rarely report crimes that happen to them due to complex social factors: accessibility of police stations, fear of stigma, or lack of awareness. Only 9% of women who experienced gender-based violence sought help from the police, the National Family Health Survey-5 showed. Who files FIRs, and under what conditions, may mean some data about women missing and found may never be collected, experts point out.
Prof. Sidharth suggests expanding the source to include hospitals that treat women who have faced violence. Some States, including Karnataka and Maharashtra, have launched government programmes that train health professionals to recognise signs of gender-based violence.
The other reality is of people missing but never reported or inquired about, mostly among women abandoned by families due to disabilities. Families abandoned women with mental illness due to social stigma, and lack of caregivers and resources, per a 2016 report by the National Commission for Women. This section of women are not accounted for in the NCRB data.
There is also the fear of data inflation around ‘found’ women or women who were traced. NCRB data for Gujarat shows more women were found (10,608) in 2021 than those who went missing (9,812), but it is unclear if they initially went missing during this period or in the preceding years. This paucity of data makes it harder to create support systems for recovered women who may still be in a vulnerable position, says Prof. Sidharth. She acknowledges the need for thorough investigation and details from both, people reporting the crime and from women who are found. “Why had they left their family, what happened?… Asking these questions post-recovery [of women] will give us a more accurate picture of how many women are missing and why,” she says.
Why is this a problem?
When we say 13 lakh women went missing during three years, an immediate thought would be to think of women kidnapped, molested, raped, and murdered, Prof. Sidharth says. But “there is a need to explain those figures,” and in the absence of disaggregate numbers, we can never comprehend the full picture. For example, a lot of women who are reported missing by their families could have voluntarily left their homes.
“If Indian statistics have seemed impenetrable, that is a failing of the community that produces data and works with it,” Ms. Sen further argued.
This also hinders targeted, efficient efforts to support women when they are traced. For instance, data, on women who elope or who are abandoned by families due to mental illnesses, can be used to preempt State action and set in place support systems. The Hindu previously reported that missing cases of young women in Gujarat were “barely given the attention that such a case deserves, on the assumption of elopement.” Cases of sexual exploitation, organ and human trafficking, and dowry deaths may go uninvestigated — crimes that disproportionately impact women and young girls, as research shows.
Organisations such as the U.N. and World Bank have regarded robust, reliable and disaggregated data systems as potential ways to address crimes against women: they inform “diagnostic work, prevention and response efforts, and policies…in key areas such as health, education, social protection, and governance,” per a 2021 report.
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