Hello? Is Someone Out There?

Through missed calls,desperate SMSes and silence,Delhi’s women reach out to a helpline to stem the violence at home and outside

Written by Shikha Sharma | Published: December 15, 2013 5:07 am

It started with a missed call early one evening. “I’m trapped,please save me,” a female voice whispered. She hung up. Immediately,the team huddled together. After a little deliberation,a cryptic SMS was sent. “What we were talking about remains unfinished. Call back when free,” the message read.

The phone rang again,a single question asked this time. Can you message? “Yes,” the faint voice replied. Immediately,the nearest police station was asked to search a locality. At 2 in the morning,the police found a scared girl locked away by her father in a little shop for marrying the boy she loved.

Till the ordeal was over,the team stayed in constant touch with the girl,providing the police details about her location. The girl was rescued. The day was saved. It was just another day at 181,the Delhi chief minister’s women distress service,launched immediately after the gang rape of a 23-year-old paramedic student in a moving bus in the capital in December last year.

On an average,the team of 16 receive 1,800-2,000 calls each day,working round the clock from a small room in the chief minister’s office in the Delhi secretariat. Their goal is simple: to be the first port of assistance for all distressed women in Delhi. From serious cases of acid attacks or sexual assault to unexpected queries about relationships,the team handles all kinds of appeals for help.

“When the helpline began on December 31 last year,six male clerks headed by a woman officer took the calls. We realised very soon it wasn’t working. Women weren’t comfortable talking to men. Men couldn’t relate to women. So we decided to look for women,who could not only think on their toes,but also understand what the callers are going through,” says Khadijah Faruqi,a lawyer and women’s activist who heads 181.

The members of the team have experienced domestic abuse themselves,which makes them more empathetic,says Faruqi. “I don’t consider myself a government servant. I’m not working for benefits or pension,but because I am emotionally involved,” says Anita Daniel,a senior caller.

Till November 30 this year,the team received 6,62,986 calls. Not all reported big crimes. “A woman called us late one afternoon asking us to help her book a gas cylinder. We said,ma’am,we are a women distress service,we don’t book gas cylinders. She told us she’ll call us in the evening again after her husband beats her up for not having the food ready. Since then,we have been helping women with booking cylinders too,” says Chanda Kumari,another caller.

So how does it work? “As soon as a woman calls,we create a case file. In this go basic details about the caller — name,address,phone number,age. Depending upon the nature of her complaint,we take action,” says Faruqi.

While the nearest police station is alerted about cases that need immediate action,like calls about stalking,the more serious ones are delegated to the senior callers,who then follow it up with the requisite authorities. Across all workstations,flyers with numbers of official contacts are pinned. “You never know where you’ll have to direct the victim. We coordinate with 19 agencies. So numbers of police officials,government employees,NGOs,the Delhi Legal Service Authority,government shelter homes,offices of the district magistrates,gender resource centres,counsellors are all kept handy,” says Daniel.

Even a missed call is not taken lightly. “It all starts with a missed call. Sometimes,we receive as many as 500 missed calls from a number,before the person gets the courage to talk. We have learnt to take these silences seriously too,” says Daniel.

The phone here never stops ringing,indicating the kind of harassment women suffer every day — both within and outside their homes. The helpline receives around 600 new calls a day,50 per cent of them from women complaining about obscene calls,sexual harassment and stalking. A quarter of them relate to complaints of domestic violence,child sexual abuse,rape,attempt to rape and kidnapping,while the rest are callers seeking advice on domestic matters. The helpline even has a men’s distress line,where men who face abuse can call in.

A person who reports about being stalked is asked about her location,and the nearest police station or PCR van asked to reach her immediately. The police are not always responsive,as in the case of the five-year-old abducted and raped in east Delhi by her neighbours. The parents of the child called 181 to complain that an FIR was not being lodged,but the police,despite being alerted by the team,stalled. “The father had called,saying no one was registering his case,that the cop was asking for Rs 2000,” says Daniel.

Every case is followed up at the police station and in the courts,till the time a decision is reached or Faruqi is sure the victim can handle things herself. Most of her time goes in following up on the cases and that she says is the biggest challenge. “Right now,we have hundreds of cases pending with officials. Sometimes,it takes days to get an FIR registered with the police.We started out with this team,but to carry this forward efficiently,we definitely require more people,” she says.

The helpline is busiest from 4 pm to midnight,with two callers on duty between 12 pm and 8 pm. “I have been working here for a year,and the thing that worries me is how violence against women has become internalised in society. It seems with the heinousness of the crime,its acceptability has also increased,” says Faruqi.

But Faruqi derives consolation from the fact that more and more women are fighting against the violence and starting their lives afresh. “Someday,you receive calls that really disturb you — when a girl is burnt to death for dowry,or when a five-year-old is sexually assaulted. But then,you receive a call from a girl you helped rescue,and how she is now living life on her own terms,and that heartens you. You get the courage to go on,” she says.

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