A Petty Achievement for Women in India

Why you should care

Poverty and pickpocketing are intimately linked.

Stories about women equaling or surpassing men in accomplishments are usually cause for celebration. Here’s something that falls squarely in a gray area in terms of “accomplishment” — at least depending on your stance on petty crime:

95%

of pickpockets caught on the Delhi Metro were female.

That’s 142 of 149 people, according to data collected by the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) from January to May of 2015. This is pretty consistent with previous years, when pickpocketing was less frequent, but women outnumbered men similarly. First, why so much purse snatching on the train? For poor women in Delhi who engage in crime, their “best opportunity” is on the metro, says assistant professor at Georgetown Shareen Joshi. The subway offers anonymity, a quick getaway and proximity to targets in crowded spaces, he says. Ridership is up too — from 702.9 million (2012–13) to 799.6 million (2013–14). Officials know that crowds attract criminals like pickpockets, so there’s “strict” surveillance for suspected thieves, says Hemendra Singh at the CISF.

As for why there are apparently so many female pickpockets: It’s possible that they’re nabbed at a much higher rate than male ones, of course. But there’s also a strong link between pickpocketing and poverty. Singh noted that many of the arrests are of women from impoverished backgrounds. Poverty in Delhi is widespread, with so much off-the-books wealth that inequality is even starker than reported, Joshi says. Who bears the brunt of economic inequality? Globally and in India, the effect of poverty is disproportionate for women — ranging from worse health and nutrition to lower literacy rates, according to the Asian Development Bank’s 2011 report.

Of course, it’s a “very localized statistic,” Prabha Unnithan at Colorado State University says. Meaning that women may be at the top of the pickpocketing game in Delhi, but across all of India, men were arrested with much greater frequency than women from 2010 to 2012. Altogether, police in India made 9.3 million arrests for violations to the Indian Penal Code, and out of those arrests, 94 percent were men and only 6 percent were women.

As for the future, there are many government initiatives, civic organizations and nongovernmental organizations like the Self Employed Women’s Association in Delhi working to combat poverty. But there is no overnight fix to economic inequality. Perhaps the most promising initiatives organize groups of Indian women in a collective to pool money, share information and gain formal assistance. Joshi says these programs are like a “bribe to [a woman’s] family to let her get out the door and go do something.” That’s the kind of go-getting we can get behind.

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