A women and children Help desk in each Police Station:An Idea whose time has come

Note: We often tend to think that civil servants are an insensitive lot, unable to emphatise with the plight of the ordinary citizen. There are of course always exceptions to the rule.

SB Agnihotri, an IAS officer currently working with the defence ministry, has specialised in women and child development issues and has worked on them in Orissa, his original cadre. Moved by the plight of the 23-year old gang rape victim, he has penned down some suggestions which are worth considering. He has allowed me to share the thoughts here.

I am departing from this blog’s normal inclination to dwell mainly only security & strategic issues (apart from cinema and cricket), as a tribute to the woman who has awakened the nation’s conscience. Read on 

By Satish B. Agnihotri

The recent incident of brutality and rape of a brave 23 year old has shocked the
conscience of the entire society. There is anger, helplessness, shrill cries for
summary retribution and knee jerk reaction. The overwhelming demand is for
more severe punishment and speedier process of trial. Some saner elements
have emphasized the point that it is the speed and certainty of punishment that
is an effective deterrent rather than the severity of the punishment. There is also
the oft repeated` demand for the all-women police station. All these ‘instant’
solutions are very tempting, but do these provide lasting solutions? Hardly so.

We have heard much of this debate before. Experience tells us that this anger
will also dissipate if we do not channelize it into lasting institutional solution to the
problem of unsafe Delhi or for that matter, increasingly unsafe urban India for its

No society is crime free. But a mature society learns from incidents of this
type and sets up anti-dotes that are both preventative and those who deal with
incidents when unfortunately, they happen. Nor are the social attitudes going to
change overnight, but a systemic effort in that direction has to begin somewhere!
We can enact any number of laws, but the devil truly hides in implementation as
the Delhi and similar such incidents have shown us in the past. Can we create a
functional, robust and helpful structure? The answer is a simple YES!

What does a rape victim, or for that matter a female victim of violence need
the most and need immediately? A trust that she will be heard and helped;
not scorned, shoed away or worst, made to suffer more ignominy. Given the
structure of our social and criminal justice system, the woman and especially the
child does not dare to approach a police station. Sympathy is the last thing they
expect there, and this is precisely where the first dent has to be made.

Women’s issues suffer from one more dilemma. We often set up exclusive
solutions for them. All women’s police stations are no exception. The unintended
side effect of it is that the mainstream police stations conveniently wash their
hands off the complainant sending her to the ‘exclusive’ thana. The all women
police station always remains a ‘second class citizen’ and, in an ironical case that
the writer is aware of, a Mahila Thana was itself asking for protection against
local ruffians – who after all have to be handled by the local ‘mainstream’ police
station. An added nuance that is ignored by all is that untrained women police
can be equally insensitive or even more insensitive, compared to their male
counterpart while dealing with women who have faced violence.

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 increase the quality of policing. More important, it has been tried out in
Odisha and there is no reason why it cannot work in, say, Delhi immediately.

Imagine a traumatized victim of violence walking into a police station. How
reassuring will the person feel if she finds a Women and Child desk manned
by a woman who is not intimidating in her manners? How reassuring if there a
sliding partition of the type we use in hospitals which give a patient privacy? How
reassuring indeed if the desk personnel;

  • Listen to the complainant with patience and compassion
  •  If required,provide her facilities such as drinking water and use of toilet.
  • Ensure that the details are kept confidential and facilitate to lodge the complaint or the FIR.
  • Help the complainant to access the services such as health, counseling,legal aid, short-stay home.
  • Provide services without being judgmental and biased due caste, creed, current situation, family background or past history of the client.
  • Uphold the dignity and respect of the client and
  • Do not give any wrong hopes and information to the client

Is it a tall order to expect the Help Desk to be open 24 hours and on all days just
as the police station is? Certainly not.

Every district has requisite support system in terms of hospital, short stay home,
legal aid cell etc. But one important missing link is the service of a councilor. It is
quite possible to have a panel of two to three professional and trained councilors
for every police stations who can be remunerated on the case attendance basis.

Are such solutions not very costly? Not at all. A proposal submitted to the
Women and Child Department in the Centre in 2005-06 for a support to about
460 police stations to set up the Women and Children help desk with support for
training, councelling, help line, mobility, communication, transport, stay at Short
stay home, sensitization workshops and monitoring and evaluation together cost
just about 4 crores of rupees. It could at best be 10 crores to-day – a cost the
society can certainly afford.

Many persons had argued for setting up a women’s desk and a children’s desk
separately. A simple ‘thought experiment’ was enough to dissuade them from
such idea. The thought experiment was to imagine the plight of a 12 year old girl
child who comes to the police station and is tossed between the two desks! We
often forget the simple wisdom of ‘united we stand’!

Training, sensitisation and capacity building of the police personnel is a big
task and has to be sustained over a long time. But wherever it has been done
properly it has been a rewarding experience. Sunita Krishnan, the brave and
now famous ‘rape survivor’ from Hyderabad who is currently working for rescue
and rehabilitation of trafficked girls, had been part of such training of Police
personnel. A week after one of her training sessions, she received a phone call
from a Police Inspector who told her that he had carried out a raid for rescue of
some girls in which he followed her instructions to the last detail. When he told
her that he found it to be the most rewarding day of his three decades service
in Police, Sunita was overwhelmed. She told this writer that it was the biggest
certificate that she ever got as a trainer.

There you are. With a little addition to the existing infrastructure, we can set
up a mainstream institutional structure to which a traumatized victim can turn
for help and support without fearing to encounter insensitivity or ridicule. It is a
place that would treat her with dignity. A desk that will connect her to the support
services rather than leaving her to fend for herself. It will be a place where not
withstanding her trauma her ‘mind will be without fear’.

It is time Delhi sheds its image as the rape capital of the country and sets up
structures that make violence against women a thing of the past. It is quite
feasible to set up such help desks in all the police stations by 8th March 2013.

This is the most constructive tribute we can pay to the 23 year old brave heart who died early on Saturday morning in Singapore.

 The time for the idea is now!

Satish B Agnihotri (sbagnihotri@gmail.com) The writer is a civil servant and currently working in the Ministry of Defence. The views are personal.