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A helpline for women in distress

January 07, 2019 09:24 IST

The call centre works round the clock attending to calls ranging from domestic violence to suicide attempts to seeking medical help.
A Ganesh Nadar/ reports.

On December 19, 2018, Tamil Nadu launched a women's helpline -- 181 -- to help victims of domestic violence as part of a central government scheme, becoming the third state to implement it.

The helpline has got off to a flier, registering almost 5,000 distress phone calls.

A couple of weeks into the scheme, the call centre has settled to answering as many as 750 calls a day.

Manned by eight young women who have either a master's degree in social work or a law degree, the call centre works round the clock with three women on the first shift (6 am to 2 pm), three on the second shift (2 pm to 10 pm), and two women on the night shift (10 am to 6 am).

When I visit the call centre around 2 pm, there are six women present, deftly fielding the calls that come in. All of them quickly log information about the number of the caller, name, area and nature of complaint.


Depending on the nature of the call, the women route the caller to the police if it is related to domestic violence, to the social welfare department in the respective districts if it is a domestic quarrel, to the ambulance service if anyone needs to be shifted to a hospital, and to counsellors if anyone is suicidal or heading to a marital breakdown.

"We also get a lot of calls asking about government schemes and also the addresses of government offices where they need to go for specific needs. Sometimes we tell them where the nearest hospital is and sometimes where they should go for counseling," one woman tells me.

"As we have been provided with high speed Internet connections, we can trace landlines to their address and mobile phones to their towers even as we speak to the caller," adds another woman.

"We get repeat calls many times, particularly when we refer them to the social welfare department. Now the department has a list of complaints which they will attend to in chronological order," explains a third woman at the call centre.

"But we tell the complainant that if they urgently need help they should stop calling the office and simply go there. If you go there, they will definitely help you with advice," she adds.

"We have staff who know the law as many callers need legal advice," says the call centre manager. The two managers take calls when the caller load is heavy or if one of the women is on leave.

All the women are young and enthusiastic, working with a smile. The high number of calls doesn't seem to faze them in any way.

On one of the call centre's walls a picture reveals their target group -- transgenders, working women, housewives, teenagers, elderly women and children.

The women's helpline is part of the state social welfare department headed by Commissioner V Amuthavalli, an IAS officer.

Commissioner Amuthavalli speaks to A Ganesh Nadar/

What is the allocated budget for this scheme?

We first installed the infrastructure. The budget is Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million) for a year. We have already received Rs 62.7 lakh (Rs 6.27 million) and we will get another Rs 45 lakh (Rs 4.5 million).

How many people keep the helpline running?

There are 11 people -- eight women who manage the phone lines, two managers and one head of the department.

How were the women selected?

Four of them have a master's degree in social work and five of them have a degree in law.

Do the women also follow up the cases? Or does someone else do it?

When there is a repeat call, the same woman follows up by calling and checking with the concerned department.

On a monthly basis, when we get all the data, we will review it and follow up when the need arises.

How many urgent calls have you dealt with?

We only started on December 19, so we have not tabulated the data yet. But I will tell you about three cases which I know about.

There was one caller who wanted to commit suicide. Our staff convinced her not to do so and directed her to a counselor.

Then there was a call from a girl in bonded labour in Erode district. We had her rescued and sent her home in Madurai.

From Adyar, Chennai, we got a call about domestic violence, within five minutes we had the police there.

How do they handle calls in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi and English?

(Smiles) When we recruited them we only made sure they knew English and Tamil. It just happened that one woman knows Telugu, another Malayalam and two women know Hindi. We did not plan it (this way).

Men are also calling on behalf of women, and some are calling to complain against women. How do you deal with them?

104 is a line where you can talk to a counselor, so we tell them to contact that number. Many have asked how come there is no helpline for men (laughs).

Judging by the number of calls do you think eight women are enough?

The Chennai Municipal Corporation has received funds under the Nirbhaya scheme, we are in touch with them. We have told them to put in three more chairs in the call centre, so at any given time we will have six women there.

What more needs to be done to fine-tune this scheme?

I am sure there is a lot we can do as we tabulate the data and see where we can help.

As of now, we have placed one counsellor in each of the all women police stations in the state.

When there is violence we call the police, but when there is dowry or other mental torture we refer the callers to the all women police station. So we felt a counsellor there will help.

We also know that some of the calls may go unanswered because all three women are occupied, but we think that will stop once we have six women in place.

A Ganesh Nadar / in Chennai