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News : Delhi’s Helpline Offers Women Port of Call
Dec 16, 2013 -- A week after a 23-year-old woman was gang-raped by a group of men in India’s capital city, Delhi’s government announced a 24-hour helpline for women.
After an initial few hours’ delay, the 181 number started working on Monday Dec. 24 connecting to all 183 police stations in the city.
The idea for a toll-free number, introduced by then-Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit and funded by the Delhi government, was to ensure that complaints of sexual violence including rape against women could be reported and were not ignored.
Nearly a year on, the head of the helpline, Khadijah Faruqui, says that as of Dec. 2, over half a million, [662, 986], calls have been received by the 16 female staff, including four floor supervisors, who man the helpline in shifts around the clock.
"It’s a human life-saving call center. We’re not booking tickets. We needed a sustained system because cases need follow ups," said Ms. Faruqui, a 43-year-old lawyer and women’s rights activist who has previously worked for Jagori, a Delhi-based women’s rights group.
She says in the first month of operation, the helpline saw about 10,000 calls a day, primarily because people were curious about the new service. Many called just to test if the number worked or wanting to know how a case would be handled, Ms. Faruqui says.
Since then there’s been a fall off. On average, 1,800 to 2,000 calls are received on a daily basis, most are made between 4 p.m. and midnight. Overall, 88,249 calls have been converted into police cases, she says, many of which have reached the courts.
Most women call to complain about obscene telephone calls they’ve received, sexual harassment and stalking. As well as reporting domestic violence, child sexual abuse, rape, attempts to rape and kidnapping, Ms. Faruqui says a significant percentage of callers look for guidance on domestic issues, although she didn’t say how many. These callers use the line to ask things one might ask a friend; advice about marrying against their family’s wishes, how to deal with an argument with a mother-in-law, or what to do if they lose their wallet or cellphone on public transport.
The team, which occupies a small room in the chief minister’s office complex in central Delhi , consists of women aged between 21 to 55 years old employed by the government on a contractual basis. They were handpicked from among graduates working or volunteering for nonprofits focusing on women’s rights. They received both technical training in redirecting cases to the correct agency, and legal classes in new laws that made voyeurism and stalking criminal offenses for the first time in India and increased penalties for rape.
The challenge for the helpline, says Ms. Faruqui, is two-fold. Firstly, dealing with women who call in to narrate incidents, but who are not aware that, according to the new law, what they are relating amounts to a crime.
"They don’t want to file a case, but they want it to stop. They don’t want the police to call them; they don’t want their parents to know. But they want it to stop," she added.
It’s a challenge to counsel them and explain that a criminal offense can’t be overlooked, or addressed properly without police intervention, Ms. Faruqui says.
There have been several instances, she says, where counselors have been sent to a caller’s home to tell the family that "it’s not their daughter’s fault."
Coordinating between different agencies and figuring out what should be done next after a call is received, is integral to the helpline’s service.
A year ago, when the helpline was announced, cynics pointed out that it would be critical to synchronize efforts with the police in order for the initiative to be successful. Even now, Ms. Faruqui says, getting the police to be responsive act promptly to requests is often a long-winded and difficult process. "But you have to get your work done and create relationships. It’s necessary to not play the blame game and let your ego come in between," she said, adding that a lot of time is taken in following up on cases registered with the police.
The constant ringing of the helpline’s phones, says Ms. Faruqui, is a definite indicator that women are willing to speak up against violence.
"One must remember that sexual abuse is not a new problem in our country. It was always there. But now, women are more powerful and emancipated. They feel that it’s my right to file an FIR, [first information report, the initial document registered by the police in a case]," she said.
Police data on reports of crimes against women back up this shift. In Delhi, 1,493 rapes were reported to the police in the first 11 months of this year, twice the number of such cases brought to the police’s attention in the same period of 2012.
For many who reported their case this year, the helpline was their first port of call. But, Ms. Faruqui says, the most important thing is to maintain contact with the women and their situations, because "they don’t finish as the call ends."
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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About Delhi Government:
The Government of Delhi is the supreme governing authority of the Indian national capital territory of Delhi and its 9 districts. It consists of an executive, led by the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, a judiciary and a legislative. The present Legislative Assembly of Delhi is unicameral, consisting of 70 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA).
Published: Tuesday, December 17, 2013