A force to reckon with
Women in distress find the All-Woman Police Stations set up in several parts of the city a haven. SUSAN SRIDHAR visits some of them.
WHERE DO helpless, vulnerable women go when they are in trouble? Who do they turn to when they are ill treated and abused? Chennai has a surprising answer - the All-Woman Police Stations (AWPS), which are fast becoming a haven for harried women.
The image of a harsh and ruthless police force is being replaced with a softer one, where pushing the accused into a cell is not the first option but counselling and guidance is. There are several situations and problems that the police have to deal with in these stations. "Star-struck girls running away from suburban homes just to meet their favourite actors Ajith and Vijay have become a problem," says a spokesperson.
Young Valli of Vandavasi was unhappy with things at home, and she left with just Rs.50 in hand. She was hoping that she would somehow meet Vijay and that he would take care of her the way he took care of his "sister" in the movie "Poove Unakkaga."
Luckily for her, the bus conductor noticed her disoriented state, and handed her over to the Adyar AWPS. Her family was immediately contacted, counselled and Valli sent to a hostel, till she was ready to go back home again. Such rescue work would be impossible if the police were not trained to handle sensitive issues as well as have a follow-up team. NGOs with varied resources do the follow-up by taking care of the victims. This collaboration has proved a boon to society. For example, hostel accommodation for Valli was provided by an NGO.
Today, Chennai can boast of six women police stations, two for each zone, with the latest being inaugurated in January, this year. The unique quality of the AWPS is that in 95 per cent of the cases, an FIR is not filed, the only exception being rape and dowry cases. Most of the petitions ensue from marital or domestic discord, where if the husband is pushed into jail, the situation only worsens for the woman. These women work hard at softening the negative image the public generally have of the police force. Today, they have begun to focus more on the individual's psyche. Training in psychology, gender sensitisation and counselling are essential for policewomen and organisations such as UNICEF are sponsoring some of these programmes.
Sub-Inspector Rajalakshmi of the AWPS rightly says, "Unfortunately, in India, mental illness is still not tolerated or accepted even by the educated section of society. Superstition and stigma only add to the misery of the mentally ill." She cites the instance of a 42-year-old woman from an affluent family who came to the police station vowing never to return home. Her family considered her "mentally unsound" and she was not allowed to work or go out as she had flouted societal norms by refusing several marriage proposals. In reality, she was quite a normal person but had become psychologically depressed when she was denied her freedom. The police counselled the entire family and the woman was ultimately allowed to work.
In a patriarchal society such as ours, gender abuse is unfortunately accepted as normal. The women police are actively campaigning against this. Every Sunday, they turn their attention to the slums, where the women are naïve about the rights they are entitled to and the legal remedies they could avail themselves of. NGOs then continue with the follow-up work.
The police also visit the city colleges and address young women on eve-teasing and other such problems. The students are encouraged to join the policewomen in their work on Sundays.
The policewomen never fail to keep the public, especially women, informed of the free Helpline (1091) and the recently inaugurated Childline (1098). Each AWPS has a Helpline and Childline cell with a vehicle that speeds to the rescue "within 15 minutes" of a call. Often, the victims are pacified and reassured over the telephone even while the team is on its way.
Of course, on some occasions, there are calls for help that turn out to be a hoax! "We have even received amusing calls where women have asked us to get them gas connections and children have called up and asked `Aunty' to tell them stories," laughs a head constable.
But there are a number of genuine cases as well. In fact, repeated calls from children in a particular slum in Nochikuppam encouraged the police to open an evening school in the area with the help of an NGO.
Interestingly, women from all classes of society seek the help of the AWPS. Recently when a woman from a medical transcription centre was threatened about an "unsigned" contract, she contacted the Helpline, which instantly came to her rescue. The Helpline has been extremely useful to housemaids, who are often ill-treated.
Latha from Madhuvankarai near Velachery, who works as a housemaid, says the fact that help is immediately available has given the girls in her area a lot of confidence.
As a matter of routine, the APWS' receive around seven to eight Helpline/Childline calls and an equal number of petitions every day. Though the juniors work in shifts, most of the senior policewomen is on call round-the-clock.
Inspector Saraswati of the Adyar AWPS, for instance, has a 10-year-old daughter, but she is on duty from 9 a.m. till 9 p.m. The women in uniform too have their families to take care of and when they say, "We hope we are making a difference to society," we cannot help but take our hats off to them in appreciation.
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