May I get a helpdesk for my lady please?

INCLUSIVITY

It’s not an ''exclusive'' all-women’s police station that we need, but inclusion of a special helpdesk right within the mainstream police stations, reckons Satish B Agnihotri

The recent gang rape incident in Mumbai has stirred the conscience of the country, yet again.  The overwhelming demand is for more severe punishment and a speedier process of trial. Some saner elements have emphasised that it is the speed and certainty of punishment, rather than its severity, that is the most effective deterrent. Such ‘instant’ solutions are tempting but do these provide lasting solutions? Hardly. We have heard this debate before. Experience tells us that this time too, the anger will dissipate if we do not channelise it into lasting institutional solutions.

Sympathetic system

What does a rape survivor, or any female victim of violence for that matter, need the most and need immediately? The surety and trust that she will be heard and helped; not scorned, shooed away or, worse, made to suffer more ignominy. Given the structure of our social and criminal justice system, sympathy is the last thing they expect in a police station, and this is precisely what the first response has to ensure.
Just imagine

Imagine a traumatised victim of violence walking into a police station. How reassured will she feel if she finds a special helpdesk with a sliding partition – of the type routinely used in hospitals – for her privacy? How reassuring it would be if the desk personnel listened to the complainant with patience and compassion,  even while facilitating the writing of the First Information Report (FIR) and ensuring that the details are kept confidential? How effective would it be if the complainant is helped in accessing the required services, whether it is health, counselling, legal aid, or a short-stay home. How helpful it would be if the victim’s dignity and self respect is upheld at all times and she is provided with the right information and advice?

Exclusivity and its banes

Women’s issues are marked by another dilemma. Exclusive solutions are conjured up for them – and setting up “all-women police stations” is one of those. The unintended side effect of this approach is that mainstream police stations conveniently wash their hands off the complainant, sending her to the ‘exclusive’ facility.

The all-women police station has always had a second class status. In an ironical case that came to notice, an all-women’s police station itself ended up asking for protection from local ruffians, who after all have to be handled by the local ‘mainstream’ police station. Additionally, a nuance that is ignored is that untrained women police can be equally insensitive or even more insensitive, compared to their male counterparts, when dealing with women who have faced violence. Hence, training and sensitisation is imperative.

Mainstream matter

Why can’t we mainstream the component of assisting women and children as part of the regular criminal justice and police system? It is feasible, cost effective and can improve the quality of policing. More important, it has been tried out in Odisha where it was initiated in 2005 in 60 police stations to begin with,  and then scaled up to over 400 police stations with encouraging results initially, as assessed independently. Of course, such initiatives can only be sustained through continued training, sensitisation and publicity, but there is no reason why they cannot be made to work in, say, Delhi or Mumbai, and stabilised over a three to five-year period.

Little bit of tweaking

In fact, every district has the requisite support systems in place, to have such a help desk open 24 hours on all days, just as police stations ad hospitals are. It is also quite possible to have a panel of two to three professionals and trained counsellors on call assigned to a group of police stations, who can be remunerated on a case-by-case basis.
With a few additions and adjustments to the existing infrastructure, we can set up a mainstream institutional structure to address the needs and trauma of a woman or child survivor of violence. It will be a place where, notwithstanding the woman’s trauma, her ‘mind will be without fear’. It is time big cities in India shed their image as unsafe places for women and set up structures that make violence against women a thing of the past.

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