New Delhi: On 19 July 2014, the then President Pranab Mukherjee rejected the mercy petition of serial killers Renuka Shinde and Seema Mohan Gavit. This was after the Supreme Court on 31 August 2006 confirmed the death sentence on the two half sisters for killing five children between 1990 and 1996 in Maharashtra’s Pune, Kolhapur, and Nashik cities.

The apex court in its judgement said that the killings, including one by banging a child’s head against an electric pole, demonstrated a “depraved mind" that killed without any compulsion. It also said: ‘’Going into the details of the case, we find no mitigating circumstances against them apart from the fact they are women."

The sisters are now among 13 women on death row in India, including Fahmida Sayed, who planted a car bomb in Mumbai that left 54 people dead in 2003.

A certain masculinity has always been associated with crime, and women criminals are relatively fewer—for total cognizable crimes in 2016, 3.54 million men were arrested while the number for women was a far lower  193,241. However, there has been an increase in the number of women coming in conflict with law in India. And among the Indian states, according to the recent National Crime Records Bureau report, the maximum number of women arrested under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) are from Maharashtra (28,029), followed by Madhya Pradesh (22,587) and then Tamil Nadu (21,959). The maximum convictions for women, however, are from Tamil Nadu (6,297), then MP (2,521), then Maharashtra (2,499). On the contrary, for men, Uttar Pradesh tops the list of having arrested maximum number of men under IPC, with 546,874 arrests, while the number of women arrested there is 19,334.

Analysts attribute economic insecurity, social deprivation, migration from rural areas to urban areas and the accompanying imbalance in adjustment to city life as some of the reasons for an increase of crime in Indian cities, for both men and women. But for women specifically, as Minakshi Sinha, associate professor at Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Science says, the social location has a role to play in whether or not women venture into crime.

“When you are empowered, you are empowered in both good and bad (ways). In places like Maharashtra, a woman is much more empowered than in north India and being more empowered means having access to more opportunities, having less social control, more knowledge of technology and advanced means of communication, more awareness of their own rights—which then means more frustration because of the lack of avenues and monetary control. Because of all these reasons and more, women have also started entering the world of crime as well," says Sinha.

Even though there is no single answer to why certain states have seen more cases of female criminality, Neeta Pillai from the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi, says it could also be a sign of a better police registration system in these places.

“It could be a combination of different factors. But the rise is not necessarily because women in these parts are more criminal than in other states. For men, it is not considered as much of a stigma to be involved in any criminal activity, so police anywhere wouldn’t hesitate much to register crimes committed by them. But this isn’t the case with women (since it defies the stereotypical image of a woman). So, the increased numbers of cases registered in places like Maharashtra (as compared to states like Uttar Pradesh), could only be an indication of a better reporting system and more awareness in these states," says Pillai.

According to the paper Female Criminality in India: Prevalence, Causes and Preventive Measures by P.M.K. Mili, R. Perumal, and Neethu Susan Cherian, published in 2015 in the International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, which analysed the rise in crimes committed by women between 2001 and 2011 from 5.4 % to 6.2 %, “Looking at the figures, one would think that it is hardly 0.8% increase in a decade. However, going into details, it is observed that the nature and severity of crimes in which women are involved has undergone drastic change."

The paper mentions how earlier there were fewer records of women involved in heinous crimes, but now women are arrested for much harder and sophisticated crimes.

While in comparison, the number of women offenders doesn’t seem high, that could also be because of the punishments meted out to the women outside of the legal system in the country.

“Women’s prisons in India are relatively less overcrowded, misleading the public into believing that the state does not really imprison women all too readily and that the problems of overcrowding that are the bane of the penal system do not plague women’s prisons. There are many reasons for the seemingly low figures in women’s prisons: women commit fewer and different crimes compared to men, and they receive more punishments in the community than men do," writes Rani Dhavan Shankardass in her book Of Women Inside, prison voices from India. 

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