Nirbhaya Fund could help improve women’s safety – but money for programs is underutilized

Since its inception in 2013, the Nirbhaya Fund, set up to finance projects aimed at improving the safety and security of women, has experienced significant underutilization and slow implementation of approved projects.

According to a recent Oxfam India report, current government spending on specific interventions for women to tackle violence against women is not even 25% of actual needs. Up to 90% of current expenditure is attributable to the Nirbhaya Fund itself.

The months of lockdown have seen an unprecedented increase in violence against women, especially domestic violence. Data from the Fifth National Family Health Survey shows that six states and EU territories experienced an increase in domestic violence and nine an increase in sexual abuse between 2015-2016 and 2019-2020. India’s rank on global gender indices remains low.

In this situation, it is important to reassess the Nirbhaya Fund as a political and budgetary strategy to combat violence against women.

Reduced allowances

While the rate of use of funds for Nirbhaya Fund programs has started to improve since 2018-2019, the annual budget allocations for many programs show a declining trend. In 2021-2022, three Nirbhaya Fund programs under the Ministry of Women and Child Development – One Stop Center Scheme, women helpline and Mahila Police Volunteers – were merged into a new framework program called SAMBAL diagram, as well as four other programs for women. The allocations for SAMBAL in 2021-2022 are 10% lower than the combined allocations for all these schemes the previous year.

All the programs implemented by the Ministry of the Interior within the framework of the Nirbhaya Fund saw a significant decrease of 88% compared to the allocation of the previous year. Fast Track Courts established under the Ministry of Justice to adjudicate pending cases of sexual abuse received an increase in allowances from Rs 150 crore in 2020-’21 to Rs 200 crore in 2021-’22 .

The months of confinement have seen an unprecedented increase in violence against women. Photo credit: AFP Photo / Sajjad Hussain

It should be noted that the programs of the Ministry of the Interior are not reported in the gender budget statement of the Union government. Allocations for fast track courts were reported the previous year, but are not included in this year’s gender budget statement. These omissions reflect a lack of consistency within the broader government framework for gender responsive budgeting. To promote accountability, it is important that all these allocations are reported in the gender budget statement.

Prolonged underuse

All ministries and departments implementing projects under the Nirbhaya Fund have experienced under-spending. According to the latest data available, the rate of use of released funds varies from 79% for the Ministry of the Interior, which receives the largest share of funds, to zero for the Ministry of Justice.

Crimes against women cases have a 91.3% wait rate and 22.2% conviction rates, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. A total of 1,023 fast-track courts have been approved under the Nirbhaya Fund, at an estimated cost of Rs 767 crore. But states have continuously reported zero use under the program, raising questions about how these courts operate.

Sanction, release and use of the Nirbhaya Fund

Figures from 2021 in Rs crore.

Source: Compiled from data reported by the Ministry of Women’s and Children’s Development, 2021 and 2020. Note: Figures reflect cumulative amounts from the time of approval through 2020-2021.

The amount of funds released is itself a small proportion of the total funds approved for programs and projects. For example, just under half of the funds sanctioned for the programs of the Ministry of Women and Child Development have been released, and of the amount released, only 27% has been used. Of funds released by the Ministry of Women’s and Children’s Development, West Bengal, Puducherry and Lakshwadeep reported no use.

While mechanisms of one-stop-shops, helplines and female police volunteers may be in place in most states, the utilization rates of funds for these programs suggest that the implementation and coverage are below normal. Delhi, Maharashtra and Karnataka account for 14% of the total calls recorded on the women’s helpline, but all three states have not reported any use since the program began.

Uttar Pradesh, which has the largest number of one-stop-shops and accounts for 50% of the cases reported to these centers, used only 12.5% ​​of the amount of Rs 50.7 crore allocated to it on six years.

A total of 25 States / Union Territories reported less than 30% of the funds available under this program. Chhattisgarh, the state where the first One Stop Center was established, received more funding than most states, and in 2020 it had the highest use at 73%.

Haryana, which was the first to implement the Mahila Police Volunteerism program, is the only state to report 100% use. Although the program was supposed to be adopted by all states after its pilot, in 2020-2021 only 13 states / union territories reported a release of funds from the ministry, and nine of those states reported zero use. .

Mahila Police Volunteers have the ability to contribute to a safer environment for women, greater reporting of crime, and better awareness, as they form a link between the police system and the public. But the low-use model, followed by zero release of funds in 2020-2021, has not resulted in any major breakthroughs.

Limits in the design

The projects proposed under the Nirbhaya Fund must have the following characteristics: “optimal use of existing infrastructure” and “innovative use of technology”, in addition to having a direct impact on women’s security issues. These guidelines appear to encourage low-cost interventions focused on crime surveillance, reporting and investigation.

Such interventions lead to an excessive focus on urban crimes in public spaces, while most violence against women occurs in domestic spaces. Few of the approved projects involve the provision of medical, legal and counseling services to women in distress, or seek to address the structural causes of gender-based violence.

Budgeting and planning processes need to be informed by a deeper understanding of violence against women. Guidelines governing the use of the Nirbhaya Fund should be broadened to incentivize interventions in other areas, such as education, health, sanitation, public infrastructure and women’s economic empowerment. For example, Kerala, in its gender budget for 2021-2022, allocated resources for medical care for women victims of violence, gender awareness in police stations and basic amenities in public places for women. women.

A change in approach is needed to prevent crimes against women, with a focus on behavior change and awareness. Central ministries and states can receive training on how to design and implement projects in these areas, according to their specific needs. The annual allocations of the Nirbhaya Fund should be gradually increased so that existing projects can be strengthened and new projects in a wider range of areas can be funded.

Shruti Ambast and Drishti Rastogi work with the Center for Budget and Governance Accountability, a think tank based in New Delhi.

Mara R. Wilmoth