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Posted By Rajini R Menon

Beating the scorching heat of Delhi, opposite to Gate No.6 of Delhi Secretariat, 25 staff (24 females & one male staff) of Delhi Women Helpline have crossed more than 55 days of protest against the privatisation of Women Helpline. These staff members are demanding the government to protect their labour rights as well the safety and security of the women in the capital. This is a disheartening fact for the capital soon after India was declared as the most dangerous country for women in a poll conducted by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (2016) reveals that the incidence of crime per one lakh female population per year among all States & UTs is the highest in Delhi with 160.4% as against 55.2 % for the whole country. When half of the population in the capital are at the risk of being harassed in the public & private spaces, Women’s Helpline Number becomes a lifeline for many. 

Trajectory of Delhi’s 181 helpline

Much before the implementation of universalised helpline as a Central Scheme, Delhi had already introduced the women’s helpline number in 2012. Soon after the heinous gang-rape of a young girl who came to be known as Nirbhaya (Fearless), the women’s groups of Delhi met with the then Chief Minister on 19th December, 2012 and proposed a helpline number for women in distress (apart from other recommendations like revisions in the Criminal Amendment Act and passing the long pending Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act).

As a consequence of this meeting, the Telecom Ministry released a three-digit women helpline number (181) as the national helpline number. This number was then introduced as the Delhi women helpline number by the then Chief Minister and it was located within the Delhi Secretariat premises. The 181 helpline is a 24/7 line operated with six male staff to manage the calls (as there would have been night shifts as well) and one female staff to support with the case-work.

However, after a couple of months, the male staff were unable to manage the distress calls and the Chief Minister called for a meeting of women’s rights organisations seeking support for the effective functioning of the system. The challenges posed with the helpline software were also given as a reason. 

the Telecom Ministry released a three-digit women helpline number (181) as the national helpline number. This number was then introduced as the Delhi women helpline number by the then Chief Minister and it was located within the Delhi Secretariat premises.

After a consultative process, a team of 12 women staff, trained in feminist counselling, were appointed to take over the work from 10th January 2013. A software company Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology expressed an interest to offer their services free-of-cost in addressing the software challenges. The company introduced a landline application for the ease of its functioning and worked closely with the helpline team in resolving the technical issues.

Over the period of two years (2012-2015), the helpline was able to answer 11.8 lakh calls, of the 16.9 lakh calls received during this period. Calls from women in distress from the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bengal etc., were also connected to their respective Station House Officers (SHOs) with adequate follow ups. Research by Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA) and Jagori (2017) explains that Delhi’s 181 helpline has responded effectively to a large number of women.

As soon as the helpline receives a call, appropriate action is taken immediately. Necessary contact is established with the nearest police station/PCR (police control room) van, ambulance, Delhi Commission for Women, Delhi Legal Service Authority etc., depending upon each situation. Security of data is ensured at each level of the process documentation and casework. 

In 2015, the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) took over from Department of Women & Child Department (DWCD) this helpline and made design changes to the organic model that was running since 2013. A study by Jagori & CBGA (2017) cites that effective implementation of helpline and many other services by the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) has been hindered by limitations in the design of interventions, human resource shortages and low budgetary outlays.

The shift in the responsibilities of the Women Helpline from the DWCD to the DCW was objected by many human rights activists. Regressive steps were taken by the state government against the present staff as a reactionary response to the protests. Withdrawal of transport and office refreshment facilities for the staff, removal of female security cops deployed for the safety of helpline staff, cancellation of their maternity leaves and shifting of office to the deserted industrial area of Naraina, without any prior formal notification, were some of the penalizing measures.

In the Naraina office, the current staff were asked to start their service as Caretel Info Tech employees and were forced to work in an environment mean to function as a call centre. The distress calls had to be ended within two minutes as commanded by the private company. The women employees faced harassment and lewd remarks from male co-workers in the shared workspace. The insensitive approach of the government left the female employees with no alternative other than to go on a protest. The female staff were often single mothers and survivors of violence themselves, and this protest placed more hardships on their domestic responsibilities. 

By transferring the state responsibility of ensuring safety and security of women to a private company (Caretel Info Tech), the Delhi government is shying away from its responsibility. Contesting on the breach of trust to the women of the capital, the Delhi High Court has sought explanation from the state government. The confidentiality of the caller details has to be maintained and therefore, the chances of misuse of data are very high as it got transferred to a private party. 

A study by Jagori & CBGA (2017) cites that effective implementation of helpline and many other services by the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) has been hindered by limitations in the design of interventions, human resource shortages and low budgetary outlays.

Where is the accountability?

After the 14th Finance Commission recommendation in 2015, the states host multiple structures in addressing violence against women through Central and State schemes. Some structures fall within the women specific legislative framework, some fall under the centrally sponsored schemes and many fit within the state schemes. Women’s Helpline is a central scheme since 2015 where the states follow different models. These different models add to the existing challenges of poor budgetary allocation, inadequate human resources, inefficient monitoring and tracking processes.

Also read: Digital Rights Foundation Launches Pakistan’s First Ever Cyber Harassment Helpline

The central accountability to these models are weak as there is no mechanism for tracking and monitoring. Operationalising Women’s Helpline is increasingly becoming complex since 2015 due to non-standardization of the national model, lack of state ownership & accountability. This ultimately demolishes the organic structures which were functioning effectively in the States/UTs before 2015. Delhi’s 181 Women Helpline is one such. The year-end review (2018) by Ministry of Women And Child states that 32 States/UTs operationalized the Women Helpline number.

However, the allocations for effective implementation of this central scheme is reducing every year, especially with a 38% decline in the 2019-20 budget. Funds for this central scheme is parked within the Nirbhaya Fund which was meant for the safety and security of women, but various sources have reported that the utilization of this fund is less than 30% as of February 2018.  In this context, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs recommended Ministry of External Affairs to desist from sanctioning of resources from the Nirbhaya Fund for the construction of buildings, which might defeat its very purpose.

Also read: An Introduction to iCall Helpline: A Counselling & Support Line for Mental Health

With the privatisation of Delhi’s Women Helpline, state’s role is largely seen as shifting to service provisioning rather than safeguarding the interests of the women. Civil society objects this approach and has placed strong recommendations for privatisation of the Women Helpline, management of the Helpline by a trained female senior staff as mentioned in the Central Government guidelines, restoration of safety services and basic facilities to the women employees in the helpline and the provision of a safe and dignified work environment for the Helpline staff. Central and state governments should be accountable to their mandates in ensuring speedy access of justice to the marginalised women of the country. 


Rajini R Menon is a human rights crusader passionate about women’s rights issues. Presently she is associated with Oxfam India.

Featured Image Source: The Week

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