Helplines meant for women either do not work or do not generate a response. With crime rising, Chennai, considered one of the ‘safer’ cities, is fast losing that tag, say residents

If you are a woman travelling alone at night in the city, and if you are stalked or harassed, all you can do is use self-defence techniques or hope that a police patrol van passes by.

You could try any one of a number of helplines that are supposed to help women in an emergency, but you would be lucky if you got through. The city police’s official women’s helpline, 1091, works only from land lines or from a BSNL mobile phone.

“I take a bus to Parrys at 8 p.m., and after that I take a share auto to Mint. It takes me almost two hours to get home. If I work late, say until 9 p.m., I don’t travel, and just stay at my aunt’s place in Saidapet,” says R. Meena, who works at an all-women petrol pump station in Royapettah.

Most women say calling 100, the general police number, is better than going to a police station or trying other helplines. “The railway helpline, 25353999 works sometimes, but they take a long time to respond and send help. A year ago, we were also given a mobile number by the city police and told to text on that number in case of a crisis, but it works only on certain routes,” said R. Asma, a bank employee.

There are at least six helplines in the city for women, two of which are run by the police. But none seem to respond when they are really needed — during an emergency. Some of the new ones that have come up are operated by non-governmental organisations, but these are meant for women in distress, and offer only counselling and short stays.

What women in the city need is a number which when dialled will be answered immediately and will generate an instant response to an emergency, said S. Shyamala, a social science researcher at the University of Madras.

Traditionally, Chennai has been seen as a safe city for women. Even the National Crime Records Bureau data till about two years ago, placed the city among the safer ones in the country. But women in the city don’t see it in quite that way.

How complaints are dealt with at police stations, still remain a major issue.

Not only are many police officials insensitive to complaints about sexual harassment or abuse, they often don’t take them seriously.

Women from poor economic backgrounds face the brunt of such treatment, said K R Renuka, president, Centre for Women's Development and Research, Chennai. “When they go and complain at police stations about domestic violence, they are often counselled to go back to their husbands or not register complaints,” she said.

An official who mans the 1091 helpline says they receive nearly 25 calls every day. “But most of them call to ask for directions or for help in legal, domestic issues and financial areas. There are no emergency calls,” he said.

A senior official said there were attempts being made to ensure 1091 worked throughout the day. “We have employed new, trained people to handle the line. Also, we are in the process of sensitising police officers to handle victims of sexual harassment or assault,” he said.

However, residents are not quite convinced, as earlier moves by the police to ensure the safety of women have fizzled out. In 2010 for instance, the city police joined hands with the Metropolitan Transport Corporation to crack down on men harassing women commuters, but the move was aborted a few months later.

Of the over 30,000 domestic violence cases reported across the country every year, nearly 40 per cent are committed in Chennai. But these statistics are just tip of the iceberg. They might be because there are more women reporting cases of domestic abuse, or even because there are more women police stations here. What we need is a thorough analysis to interpret crime records, said Anupama Srinivasan Programme, director, Gender Violence Research and Information Taskforce, Prajnya.

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