In 2020, India saw a 10% rise in women's arrests since 2015 and their convictions fell by 50.5% in the five years, showed FactChecker's analysis of data from the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) and the Prison Statistics India (PSI).

This is when, between 2015 and 2020, the number of men arrested decreased by 21%. Although there's a vast gap between the two genders on the number of arrests made for cognizable offences under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Special and Local Laws (SLL) — 3.55 lakh women were arrested in 2020 and almost double (6.45 lakh) the number of men were arrested that year. The IPC is the criminal code of the country which defines criminal offences and provides punishments for offences committed, whereas the SLLs are laws that are framed by state governments for specific offences.

While the number of women chargesheeted has increased by 19%, the fall in convictions points at a percentage rise in undertrials (27.2%) — from 66.8% women undertrial prisoners in 2015 to 75.7% in 2020.

To understand female criminality in India, FactChecker analysed data on the nature of crimes women committed and were imprisoned for. Here's what we found:

Most Women Incarcerated for Hurt

Among the 3.55 lakh women arrested in 2020, almost all (99.5%) were chargesheeted but only 8.6% or 30,871 were convicted — 13,620 under cognisable IPC and 17,251 under SLL offences.

Offences under the IPC included six categories: Offences affecting human body, Offences affecting State, those against public tranquility, against property, offences relating to documents & property marks and miscellaneous IPC crimes. Of these, most women prisoners (4,280) were convicted for offences affecting the human body.

Further, these six categories included 55 cognisable and non-cognisable crimes. Cognisable offenses are those under which a police officer can make an arrest without a warrant and under non-cognisable offences, they can't. Under these, the largest proportion of women were imprisoned for hurt, which is IPC Section 319 (whoever causes bodily pain, disease or infirmity (physical or mental weakness) to any person is said to have caused hurt).

For allegedly committing this offence, 41,829 women were arrested and 3,168 were convicted in 2020. Further, women committing heinous crimes such as murder and dowry deaths have fallen by 49.2% and 70% since 2015, respectively.

When it comes to SLLs, 91% of women were convicted for Liquor and Narcotic Drugs-related offences in 2020. Dr Beulah Shekhar, professor emeritus in Department of Criminology, Karunya Institute of Technology and Sciences in Tamil Nadu, said female criminality can only be prevented if women are first acknowledged as offenders. "In NCRB, you will find sub-headings related to crimes against women but you don't find a single sub-topic on crimes by women," said Shekhar. "So we haven't even given female criminality that importance. We only see them as victims."

Shekhar, who co-authored a survey on victims turning into offenders, said there was a correlation between the type of victimisation experienced by offenders and the type of crime they commit. If they have been victims of physical abuse, the type of crime committed is hurt or grievous hurt, she gave an example.

"While trying to understand past victimisation of female inmates, it is important to know if they have reported and reconciled with their victimisation. In my experience with prisoners, they have no coping skills," said Shekhar.

UP Tops in Women's Convictions

While Tamil Nadu ranks highest in women's arrest in 2020, Uttar Pradesh saw the highest number of women's convictions (1,182) and women undertrials (3,344) that year. UP also admitted the highest number of inmates in 2020 — 3.19 lakh — followed by Bihar (2.3 lakh) and Madhya Pradesh (1.26 lakh).

Among cities, Ahmedabad (654) accounted for the highest women's convictions, followed by Jaipur (220), Chennai (167), Delhi (146) and Coimbatore (133).

Most women booked in rural areas are charged for crimes related to dowry, said Surekha Sale, senior social worker at Prayas, a non-profit that works with women prisoners and their children. "In my 30 years of working with female inmates, I have seen that almost 60%-70% cases in rural areas are related to dowry or dowry deaths," she said. "But in cities, you'll find women imprisoned for all types of crimes. For instance, you'll find well educated and post graduate women in cheating cases."

Overcrowding in Women's Jails

More than 20,000 women were imprisoned in different types of jails across the country and of these, 15.4% or 3,084 were lodged in women's jails as of December 31, 2020. Of the 1,306 prisons in the country, 29 are reserved for women and 14 states and Union Territories have separate women's jails. Rest of the women are housed in smaller jails within men's prisons.

The occupancy rate in women's jails decreased from 63% in 2015 to 50.1% in 2020. However, the overall occupancy rate of female inmates in all prisons has increased from 71.7% in 2015 to 78.6% in 2020. Data show that this is mainly due to the rise in undertrial prisoners – 27.2% increase from 66.8% in 2015 to 75.7% in 2020. Shekhar said conviction rate and number of undertrial prisoners can't be looked at in isolation. "We need to see where our legal education policies are lacking. Police should be trained to use scientific methods rather than resorting to third degree methods during investigation. When there is no proper evidence or it's not admissible in court, the conviction rate goes down," she explained.

While Rajasthan (6) has the highest number of women's jails, its occupancy rate is only 39.2%. Bihar (111.2%) has reported the highest overcrowding in women-only jails, followed by West Bengal (107%) and Maharashtra (101.5%). On the other hand, Uttarakhand (156.5%) has reported the highest overcrowding in women's cells, which are part of common prisons, followed by Uttar Pradesh (153.5%) and Chhattisgarh (136.5%).

Female Inmates with Children

Indian prisons had 20,046 women by the end of 2020 and 7% of these were living there with their children. As many as 1,628 children were living in prisons with their mothers — 1,427 women. Among these, the majority (1,184) were undertrials and 214 were convicted. Children up to the age of six are allowed to stay with their mothers in prisons, while children under 3 should be looked after in crèches and those in the 3-6 age group should be taken care of in nurseries, run by organisations appointed by jail authorities, according to Supreme Court guidelines. "Although children live with their mothers in prison, they are given special, less spicy food," said Sale.

Here too, UP is on top with the highest number of female inmates living with their children (397 women with 452 children), followed by Bihar, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh.

Of the 879 organisations working exclusively for prison reforms, 166 are dedicated only for the welfare of women prisoners. Of these, most are in West Bengal (40), followed by UP (31) and Assam (12). "Most mothers prefer not to keep their children with them in prisons but many do not have families or relatives who can provide for the child since they mostly are from poorer backgrounds," said Sale.

Further, Mulakat or meeting systems are in place in prisons, which were transitioned into e-Mulakat systems or virtual meetings for interaction between prisoners, their families and advocates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Support FactChecker, India’s first dedicated fact-checking initiative

Your tax-deductible contribution to FactChecker will help us fact-check statements made by people in public life and give context to important matters that are otherwise left undiscussed