Women Safety: A dysfunctional toll-free women helpline in West Bengal; Assam helpline lacks sufficient funds

As per the National Crime Records Bureau 2019, West Bengal and Assam are among the top-five states in crime against women. West Bengal’s toll-free 24/7 helpline is dysfunctional while its landline helpline works only five days a week during office hours. Assam’s helpline is under-staffed and cash-strapped.

Purnima Sah
| Updated: October 29th, 2020

The helplines (landline numbers) are struggling to keep up with the number of crimes being committed against women.

Cooch Behar, West Bengal. 

Shubhashree Majumdar (name changed) of Alipurduar in West Bengal, about 730 kilometres from the state capital Kolkata, was only 19 years old when she married her boyfriend. Within a year, they had a daughter. Majumdar wanted to study more and become self-reliant, but her husband would have none of it. “He would lock me up before he left for work. When my daughter fell ill, my neighbours broke the lock and helped me reach the hospital. When my husband came to know, he beat me black and blue,” she narrated to Gaon Connection

She is divorced from her husband, but says she has lost 25 years of her life to a bad marriage. “People ask me why I stayed quiet for so many years and not called the police. I didn’t even know there were helpline numbers to help women like us,” she said.

In Cooch Behar, less than 25 kms away from where Majumdar lives, is Madhuri Ghosh (name changed), who had a difficult childhood. Her parents ill treated her, because she was a girl, she said. When other kids her age were playing and studying, her mother made her do the household chores and often starved her. At 22, she grabbed at what she thought was an escape, and eloped and got married. Barely a couple of years into the marriage, the beatings and the mental abuse began. 

“We had a son and I found out my husband was having an extra marital affair. When I questioned him, he would beat me up. Who do I report my whole life to?” Ghosh asked Gaon Connection. Unlike Majumdar, Ghosh continues to live with her husband and their now 16-year-old son.  

There are a number of young girls and women like Majumdar and Ghosh who suffer physical and mental abuse, sometimes all their lives, but do not know where to turn for help. Although the states in India have set up dedicated toll-free helplines for women, many are unaware of them. 

Many men in the country lock their wives up before they leave for work.

As per the recently released National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 2019 report, crime against women (reported cases) is on the rise in the country from 345,989 cases in 2017 to 391,601 in 2019. Uttar Pradesh tops the list with 59,853 reported cases in 2019. West Bengal and Assam, who make it to the top-five states, are also not far behind at 30,394 and 30,025 reported cases of crime against women in 2019, respectively. Incidentally, West Bengal failed to provide its 2019 data for crime against women, hence its 2018 data had to be used in the 2019 report. 

Both the eastern states have women helplines, but unlike Assam, which has a dedicated toll-free number, the toll-free helpline in West Bengal (1091) is still to function. For now, there are landline helpline numbers which work only during weekdays between 10 am and 5.30pm. 

The West Bengal Commission for Women’s helpline (033-2359-5610 / 2359-5609 / 2321-0154) is available only (emphasis added) during office hours (10 am to 5.30 pm) from Monday to Friday. It is only recently that the chairperson of the West Bengal Commission for Women, Leena Gangopadhyay (98309 47247) made public her mobile number considering the surge in the number of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

West Bengal: Toll-free helpline doesn’t work, One-Stop-Centre missing

The West Bengal Commission for Women, started way back in 1993, has a chairperson, vice-chairperson and nine other members (all of them women), a secretary, two counsellors and two law officers (both women), and a media consultant. All of them attend incoming calls on the landline helpline numbers during office hours from Monday to Friday. 

“There is no specific staff to run the helpline numbers, we handle every call. We also have to be available on our designated mobile numbers 24/7. Several NGOs are also working with us in various locations,” Subhadeep Bhattacharya, media consultant, West Bengal Commission for Women, told Gaon Connection.

“There is a proposal to have a 24/7 toll free helpline number,” Gangopadhyay added. But right now, people have to send in written complaints to the West Bengal Commission for Women, by email, SMS or a WhatsApp message. Those who do not have access to mobile phones have to send in a handwritten complaint. “The difficulty during this pandemic is that women are not able to come and report cases like they used to before,” she said.

As per Kolkata police website, on the International Women’s Day, 1091 was announced as the toll-free woman helpline number for the state. However, 1091 is not active yet. Gaon Connection reporter made several attempts to call this toll-free number, but could not get through. When contacted, the Kolkata Police Booth (98300 79999) was unable to explain why the toll-free 1091 number was not active and shared another number (8017100100) that turned out to be an Anti-Stalking Helpline number meant only for the residents of Kolkata, and not other parts of the state. 

Systems should be put in place and streamlined in order to enable Helpline staff to function more efficiently.

While the toll-free number seems only on paper, the landline helpline numbers are often hard to reach. Many women complained that either the lines are engaged or no one picks up their call when they are in need. When Gaon Connection reporter called up the landline helpline of the Women Grievance Cell (033 2250 5175) given by the Kolkata Police (033 2250 5000), there was no response.  

The situation is even worse at district levels. For instance, in Cooch Behar district, the post of protection officer for domestic violence has been lying vacant for almost a year now. The legal probation officer is doing both the jobs.

According to Bhattacharya, apart from a 24/7 toll-free helpline,  One Stop Centres in the state would help matters. While the helpline centres rescue the victim, thereafter the woman has to visit the police station to file an FIR, go to a hospital for treatment, collect the medical reports, then meet legal officers, a counselor and so on. On the other hand, One Stop Centres have all the services under one roof and the victim does not need to run from pillar to post. 

Efforts were made to set up such centres in the state, but nothing concrete has happened so far. While there was a proposal to set up a One Stop Centre in Cooch Behar a year and a half ago, it came to nought. 

“We were told to select a government institute to set up the centre. The building was selected, the public works department was supposed to inaugurate it and they even fixed a budget for it,” Snehashis Chowdhury, district child protection officer, Cooch Behar, revealed to Gaon Connection.

The Cooch Behar Medical College was selected as the venue and a list of those to be employed was also prepared.  The centre was launched. But, the fund that was supposed to be sanctioned by the Women and Child Development and Social Welfare never came. It has been six months, but the One Stop Centre is yet to become a reality.

Assam asks for aid 

The neighbouring state of Assam, reported the highest rate of crimes against women (per lakh population), according to  NCRB data, 2019. Unlike West Bengal, Assam has one helpline – 181 – and 33 Sakhi One Stop Centers across the state’s 33 districts, which were launched six months ago. 

Whenever a call registers on 181, the case is transferred to the nearest Sakhi Centre, so it is easier to reach the victim. From March 29, 2018 to October 6, 2020, Women Helpline Assam has received 2,731 calls for help, for cases of crimes against women that include kidnapping, property dispute, cyber crimes,  sexual violence domestic violence and desertion.  

On some days the helplines receive about four distress calls, and there are days when the number of SOS calls go up to even 10.  

“The sheer number of people appealing for help is overwhelming the helpline officials who are struggling to help the survivors. Around 70 per cent of cases received by 181 Women Helpline Assam, fall under the domestic violence category,” Neelakshi Sarma, Manager, 181 Women Helpline, Assam, told Gaon Connection

For instance, Riya Barua (name changed), a class VIII student in Udalguri district of Assam, was sexually abused by her father for five years before her elder brother found out and complained to the 181 Women Helpline in Assam. “He often hit mother and hurt her physically. Every time he drank alcohol, he wanted me to be with him. What is strange is that my mother didn’t do anything about it despite knowing this was happening to me,” Riya told Gaon Connection

It was only when Riya informed her sister-in-law over a phone call, that her brother called 181 and the police came to arrest the accused who is behind bars now and the case is in the Special Court.

There are a number of young girls and women who suffer physical and mental abuse, but do not know where to turn for help.

Even though Assam has a dedicated women helpline and Sakhi One Stop Centre in each of its districts, the helpline services are understaffed and overworked. 

At present, Women Helpline Assam has 12 coordinators who are working in the call centre on shift basis along with two lawyers. “Not only are they buried under the deluge of distress calls, they are poorly paid, and are on eleven-month contracts. Often their salaries are delayed and they get paid anything between Rs 12,000 and Rs 40,000,” Sarma told Gaon Connection

She spoke about the problem of official apathy and indifference that hampered their work. “In order to get orders under the domestic violence act, we need to depend on the advocates from the District Legal Service Authority and this is where our real struggle begins,” she said, adding how the advocates who are paid by the government are indifferent and disinclined to help. “We also prepare the survivor’s petition and share it with the advocates so that they don’t charge the survivor money,” she added. 

According to her, the reason why Assam is among the top five states with highest reported cases of crime against women is because the state encourages women to report cases.

Meanwhile, the Women Helpline Assam hopes to widen its  reach. It plans to integrate the National Legal Services Authority Helpline 15100 (NALSA provides free legal services to people who are in need of it). “Our idea is that we will bear the cost of installing the helpline. All the government needs to do is place five lawyers in our office and take care of the telephone bills. Once this helpline is integrated, with the lawyers and helplines within our office premises, it will lead to a stronger coordination,” Sarma explained. 

While helplines struggle for money for even the most basic of infrastructure, it is significant that there is a corpus of money that is lying underutilised, the union ministry of women and child development, by its own admission revealed. 

The Nirbhaya Fund that was set up in 2013, to rehabilitate survivors of sexual violence and implement schemes to help them pick up the pieces of their lives, has set aside Rs 3,024.46 crore for this very purpose. But,  only 63 per cent of it has been utilised in the last seven years. Of it, Assam is one of the states that has used only 32.06 per cent of the funds allotted to it while West Bengal is one of the top utilisers at 81.7 per cent.  

Often, toll-free helplines provide the much needed help at hand to women in distress. They are the stepping stones in controlling crime against women in the country. States need to go beyond just setting up these helplines if women have to feel safe. Systems should be put in place and streamlined in order to enable Helpline staff to function more efficiently. Regular salary, better leave entitlement and more facilities, can go a long way in increasing their efficiency in reaching out to more women in distress.