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News : A Single Helpline Number 181 to Help Women in Distress
New Delhi, India, May 25, 2015 -- A single call to a "universal helpline" promises to bring speedy relief to women in distress under a government proposal, whether she needs rescue from violence, emergency medical treatment, counselling, shelter or legal aid.
One of the proposed all-India helpline's key features will be its ability to automatically trace the caller's location and send emergency help, as in many western countries.
Currently, the various private and public helplines in India are divided by the nature of support sought - police, fire services, ambulance, legal aid or counselling - and by geography (city and state).
The idea is to unite all the helplines for women under a single number, 181, and merge their infrastructure across the states.
The result will be, it's hoped, a uniform response system that will seek out the caller anywhere in India and bring help to her doorstep in the shortest time possible.
The number 181 as a helpline for distressed women already exists in some states but it is not integrated with other emergency services; nor is it a cross-state, all-India system.
One drawback of the current helplines is that the operators wait for the caller to give her address, the proposal document prepared by the Union women and child development ministry acknowledges.
"If the caller is not able to convey her location, or (if the) location conveyed by her is vague or erroneous, then there is a possibility that the responding unit may not locate her," it says.
"Or," it notes, when an imprecise address is given, "a responding unit which may not be in the immediate vicinity of the caller could be asked to help her, resulting in the loss of crucial time during emergency response."
The universal helpline will try to rectify this. No timetable, however, has been set for its launch.
Women's activists have always acknowledged that one of the biggest problems that callers face while reporting any kind of emergency in India is the lack of a unified approach.
There are now various numbers for different emergency services, such as police (100), fire services (101), distressed women (1091 or 181 or any other), hospital/ambulance (102), distressed children (1098) and the National Legal Services Authority (Nalsa) Helpline for Free Legal Service (15100).
Some states have launched a partially integrated emergency response service combining medical, police and fire services (108), or a "chief minister helpline" (181 or 108), however.
The ministry paper acknowledges the problems arising out of the absence of a centralised system.
"Currently, different state governments have set up helplines in collaboration with NGOs and private organisations. Various NGOs working on women's issues have also undertaken helpline initiatives... but these attempts have been sporadic and state/city-centric due to the limitations of outreach and resources," it says.
While the women and child development ministry would be the nodal agency for the helpline and provide the legal aid too, the ministry of communications and information technology, department of telecommunications, home ministry and the ministry of health and family affairs will collaborate to provide technology, police help and health services.
The scheme will be funded through the Nirbhaya Fund, meant to support government and NGO initiatives towards women's safety.
Women's rights activist Rishikant, however, sounded a caution.
He said that while activists had always endorsed the idea of a universal helpline, it would not work unless the police were sensitised across the country.
"What's the use of a high-tech helpline if the first responders are not prompt enough? I have seen many cases where the cops, despite getting distress calls, don't respond promptly," he said.
"Some are hampered by lack of gadgets, some by lack of vehicles and most just lack the motivation. These schemes look good on paper, they have an international feel about them, but they invariably fail during implementation."
Rishikant, however, ended on a hopeful note, saying: "However, if this government manages to push this through by proper monitoring, this a great proposal."
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Published: Thursday, May 28, 2015