Stuck in an emergency or crisis at night? Well, don’t bother calling any of the helplines meant for women, child, family or the elderly that are managed at the Police Commissioner’s Office: they shut shop before 8 p.m.
This counterintuitive policy is particularly insensitive to the needs of women and the risks they face particularly while travelling alone at night.
Following the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in Delhi last December, the former Home Minister and Deputy Chief Minister, R. Ashok, had announced that a helpline for women would run 24 hours. But employees at the helpline admit that it functioned that way only for a few weeks.
“Calls that come after 8 p.m. are supposed to be diverted to the police control room. But about a month ago we shifted to the office in the Police Commissioner building premises and there have been several technical glitches and the calls do not get transferred. Our repeated requests to the BSNL office have gone in vain,” a source said.
Staff at the women’s helpline are aware of the irony of the situation: that the helplines are not accessible when they are needed the most. “For several days soon after the Delhi rape case we were monitoring calls 24/7. We helped women who were stuck in isolated places by coordinating with the local police,” said an employee.
Considering that most incidents of violence against women take place at night, it is necessary that the helpline functions 24 hours, says Dona Fernandes, founder-member of Vimochana. “When women are in danger at night, what should they do?”
Another logistical problem for the women and child helplines is that all mobile calls – even from districts – reach the Bangalore centre. For instance, a woman from Gulbarga, who called on the helpline when this reporter visited the centre, got little help. “She says that her husband and his family are harassing her. But there is not much that we can do as we do not have the contact person of any counsellor in Gulbarga. I advised her to go to the nearest police station.”
But the woman from Gulbarga insisted that she wanted to speak to a counsellor and not the police. “Then you will have to come to Bangalore,” the police staff at the helpline advised her.
While the women, child, and family helplines are run by the Bangalore city police with Parihar, a non-governmental organisation, the helpline for the elderly is run by the Bangalore city police along with Nightingales Medical Trust.
And the elderly helpline stops functioning at 6 p.m. itself.
On an average the women and child helplines together receive 200 to 300 calls per day, while the elderly helpline receives around 40 calls.
Between April 2012 and May 2013, the women helpline has received 1,143 calls under six categories: ‘marital disharmony’ (452 calls), ‘pre-marital relation’ (38), ‘extra-marital relation’ (182), ‘dowry harassment’ (247), ‘alcoholic/psychiatric’ (178), and ‘cheating/finance’ (46).
Out of the 1,143 cases, 47 per cent ended in reconciliation or settlement. Although all the calls received are documented and registered by helpline staff, they do not have the powers to file cases under the IPC.
“We have no legal powers. People have to go to the police station if they have to file cases,” said Rani Shetty, coordinator of the women, family and child helpline. Counsellors, she said, generally “try to reach a compromise, help parties reconcile and reach an amicable settlement.”
Responding to this, Raghavendra Auradkar, City Police Commissioner, said that the police staff deployed at the call centre were present only to assist the counsellors.
“The helpline is a counselling centre and meant for those who need a patient hearing.”
“The thrust of the helplines appears to be driven to saving family rather than standing by the rights of women or protecting women from domestic violence,” says Ms. Fernandes.
“There is an overwhelming urge to bring families together to avoid separation.”
Asked why the helpline centre which was meant to be open 24 hours was open only up till 8 p.m., Mr. Auradkar said, “After 8 p.m., people can call on 100.”