Gendered Policy (Part 1): Universalisation of Women Helpline Scheme

Taking notice of the alarmingly high rate of crimes against women in India, the Ministry of Women and Child Development has implemented schemes to reduce violence against women. Some of these include the ‘One Stop Centres’, ‘Universalisation of Women Helpline Scheme’, and the ‘Mahila Police Volunteers Scheme’. They all come under the Nirbhaya Fund Framework – a non-lapsable fund for projects and schemes that pertain to the safety and security of women.     

The Universalisation of Women Helpline Scheme was implemented in 2016 to provide 24 hours immediate emergency response to women by referring them to the pertinent authorities such as police stations, hospitals, or One Stop Centres. It also operates to dispense information about other government schemes throughout the country that are related to women safety. The Women Helpline (WHL) is integrated with One Stop Centres (OSCs) which provide aggrieved women with access to medical, psychological, and legal support. Women in need of these services can use the WHL to be referred to an OSC. The scheme has universalised all local helpline numbers to the dedicated single national helpline number ‘181’ at the State and Union Territories level.

Services Under the Scheme

         Based on the urgency and details given by an aggrieved woman (or someone on her behalf), the helpline responder can refer her to the relevant support services. If it is a dire situation in need of an immediate response, the nearest police station can dispatch a police control room (PCR) van to the caller’s location. The WHL can also be used to register complaints about harassment on the phone or online. It also disseminates information about laws, existing schemes, and support programs pertaining to women and any woman requiring information about the same can use the helpline to receive guidance.

Accessibility

         The Women Helpline is accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week via telephone (including toll-free calls and SMSs) and the Internet (in the form of emails, links on web pages, and social networking sites). It also has the provision to track the location of an individual and trace the call, in case it gets cut off midway or if the situation worsens.  

Qualitative Criticisms

         While the Universalisation of Women Helpline Scheme has been implemented in 32 states and UTs across India, a press release from the Ministry of Women and Child Development posted on July 12, 2019 indicates that it has not been operational regularly across the years in some states. In Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Goa, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Karnataka, for example, the helpline was not operational till the fiscal year 2018-19, even though the scheme came into action in FY 2016-17 in other states.

Since the purpose of the scheme is to universalise all calls to a singular nation-wide hotline number, it begs the question – are there enough responders to man the hotline in respective states?  A statement provided by Smriti Irani paints a rather sketchy picture of the number of persons employed under the WHL scheme for the past 4 years. Haryana, for example, only has 6 employees working under the WHL – a number that has not increased since it first became operational in 2018. Similarly, Maharashtra started with only 1 respondent in 2016 and now boasts of a mere 8. While Gujarat has 170 employees under the scheme, Uttar Pradesh, a state with over thrice the population of Gujarat and a higher crime rate (as of 2016), only has 98. The disproportionate number of respondents to people living in each state casts a doubt about the overall efficacy of the scheme.

Data provided for state/UT-wise sanction, release, and utilisation of funds also reflects that many states did not utilise any of the allocated funds. Manipur, Maharashtra, and Lakshadweep did not spend a single rupee of the fund while Delhi and West Bengal utilised only a negligible fraction. In total, 65% of the 20.24 crores administered to the Universalisation of Women Helpline Scheme has been used from 2016-19. However, the state/UT-wise statement on the number of women who have benefitted from the helpline seems to display an upward trend for most states across the years. While the underutilisation of funds is less than ideal, the WHL scheme is still doing better in this aspect compared to some of the other schemes under the Nirbhaya Fund. The Nirbhaya Fund is grossly underutilised (only 9% utilisation overall), with some of its major schemes spending less than 25% of their funds. Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Telangana, New Delhi, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra received the highest funds from the Nirbhaya Fund but an average of merely 5-7 percent of the fund was utilised in these states. In spite of a dismal record of the utilisation of funds, the Centre has been reallocating cash to the One Stop Centre and Universalisation of Women Helpline schemes every year even in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh that did not utilise any of the money from the previous year.

In the face of the sheer number of crimes against women every day in India, the Centre cannot simply stop at devising schemes and funnelling money into them. While the framework of the schemes has potential, they are nowhere near the maximum capacity at which they should be operating. Clearly, pumping money into these schemes every year has no effect on their potency if funds are underutilised and there are no sanctions in place to ensure that they are working optimally. The fund named after the horrifying 2012 rape case that shook the country is being used abysmally and it is the government’s duty to warrant proper implementation of schemes and deliver on their promise of making this country safer for women.

Sanjana Hira is a third year undergraduate student pursuing a degree in Economics and Psychology from Ashoka University.

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