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stephanie nolen

Women gather at a village well to draw drinking water at Kayla village, 65 km west of the Indian city of Ahmedabad, May 5, 2009.AMIT DAVE/REUTERS

There has been a huge spike in the level of violent crime reported against women in India in the past 18 years – and that's good news, according to new research.

The study shows that there isn't really more crime, but that more of it is being reported to authorities, and researchers say the spike can be traced a constitutional amendment in 1993 that requires one third of seats on local councils be reserved for women.

Such a change might have been expected to improve life, particularly for marginalized rural women. But when a team of researchers went looking for evidence to demonstrate that improvement, they made a startling discovery.

"What we were expecting and hoping to find was a decline in crime against women, when this group historically discriminated against got new power," said Lakshmi Iyer, a political economist with Harvard Business School and lead author of a new study probing the subject. "Instead we found a very high increase. We were surprised and distressed."

By comparing data on crimes against women (such as rape, dowry death and sexual harassment) from before and after the reservations, or quotas, were introduced, the researchers found that those crimes went up 44 per cent on average.

So Prof. Iyer and her three colleagues went back to their data and dug in deep to try to figure out what was happening. They considered the possibility that having women on councils was prompting a backlash, as it upended the normal power dynamics in male-dominated societies, and thus more women were being attacked in retaliation.

And they tested the hypothesis that the greater public participation of women was exposing them to more opportunities to be victims of crime. But neither of those theories held up.

Finally, drawing on more bodies of data, they found their answer, Prof. Iyer says. It wasn't that there was more crime, but simply that more of it was being reported when women had seats on village and district councils. Women were more likely to go to police to report a crime (a huge change, in a country where as much as 80 per cent of such crime is believed to be unreported). And then police were more likely to open a case – and indeed 30 per cent more likely to make an arrest – after the reservations were introduced.

"Paradoxically it is good news – it shows they improve the voice of women," Prof. Iyer says. "If you want justice, you have to first record the crime."

There was no significant increase in crimes not specifically targeted against women, such as property crimes, after the reservations were introduced, suggesting that law and order did not deteriorate. Nor were there other significant policy changes other than the reservation of seats for women over this time period. The study controlled for a host of demographic, social and economic variables, such as the size of police forces, rising literacy rates and urbanization.

The team has two possible explanations for why police officers are more likely to register a case for women after the reservations law. "The presence of female leaders at the local level might induce the police to be more sympathetic towards female victims, either because their attitudes towards women undergo a change after observing female political leaders, or because these local leaders have the ability to highlight poor behaviour by the police to higher-level officials or the local press."

Similarly, there are two possible reasons women may be more willing to report crimes, the study finds "They may become more self-confident as a result of seeing other women in political office, hence reducing their tolerance of injustice and their reluctance to report crimes," or they may be motivated by the perceived changed in police behaviour.

In a national household survey, women reported greater satisfaction in their interactions with the police after the reservation law were introduced, and higher satisfaction with police behaviour in villages where the council head was a woman.

A decade after reservations are introduced in each area, the spike in crime reporting begins to level out. "We've shown the reservations improve the voice of women," Prof. Iyer says. "Now whether it changes their status remains to be seen."