A busy night at Delhi's helpline for women

Khadeeja says the centre receives up to 3,000 calls a day

It's six in the evening and the three phone lines at the newly set up women's helpline in Delhi are ringing continuously.

One of the callers is a young woman who complains that she is being stalked by some men on a motorcycle on her way home from work.

She sounds afraid and can barely put her words together to register a complaint.

The team member who answers the call tries to calm her down.

"Don't worry, we are with you. Have you noted down the number of the bike they are following you on? Speak up without any fear," she consoles her.

This is a normal day at the special helpline set up by the Delhi government exclusively for women after the brutal gang rape of a young woman shook the capital last December.

'Stressful'

It is a small room in a bustling government office, where a team of 12 women work round the clock in shifts and attend to calls.

Every day, they receive 2,500 to 3,000 calls from women who say they are in distress.

They complain of being stalked, receiving lewd text messages on their mobile phones, molestation and domestic violence.

The executives listen to each caller, take down details, counsel her, call up the police and ensure that the complaint is registered.

"After evening the number of calls increases tremendously. It is a stressful job but the satisfaction of helping a woman is immense," says Savita, a senior team member who uses only one name.

But there are lighter moments as well.

Women's helpline poster The government plans to make 181 a nationwide helpline

"Once we received a call from a woman complaining about a barking dog in her neighbourhood. We told her that we couldn't help her but she insisted that it was our duty to resolve the matter," Ms Savita says.

Some callers misuse the facility as well.

"After following up on certain calls, we discovered that some women had filed false complaints about their husbands only to harass them. It's a tricky business. No wonder we get calls from men asking for a helpline for them as well!"

As the call flow increases, senior executive Khadeeja walks into the room.

She takes over the calls which are "serious in nature".

"Sometimes women report about rapes in their households but they want to remain anonymous. We give them the courage to come forward and register police complaints. We involve senior police officers in such cases and ensure that the culprits are sent behind bars."

She says that women do not go to the police station to report sexual crimes because they are afraid of being maligned.

"In most cases, police don't register cases of rapes and ridicule women who come forward to report them. The police lack sensitivity required to handle such cases."

'Disaster'

This is one major reason, she believes, which forces them to call up the helpline.

The helpline was launched hurriedly after the outrage caused by the horrific gang rape incident.

Initially, male government clerks were tasked with taking calls.

Demonstrators shout slogans and raise their hands during a candlelight march for a gang rape victim, who was assaulted in New Delhi January 16, 2013 There was widespread outrage after the rape incident

"It proved to be a disaster," says Ms Khadeeja.

"The men handling the calls were not able to connect to the problems of women. We then hired women rehabilitated by NGOs. Because these women themselves have been victims of sexual violence, they are able to empathise with the women in distress."

Ms Khadeeja says that this is what makes the women's helpline different from the existing police helpline.

Meanwhile, Ms Savita is busy fighting it out with a police official who has kept her call on hold for more than half-an-hour.

"Dealing with the police is a challenge. Sometimes we have to push really hard to get a case registered. It helps that this helpline has been set up by the chief minister of Delhi. We can use her name to create pressure on them," she says.

Buoyed by the overwhelming response, federal Telecoms Minister Kapil Sibal has announced plans to make 181 a nationwide women's helpline.

But, Ms Khadeeja says the real change is still awaited.

"This is a step in a good direction, but we should aim for a day when such helplines are not needed at all; when women enjoy equal status in the society and are not treated as a commodity."

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