In the 21st century, with technology, digitalisation and development being facilitated all over India and the world at large, the need to talk about women’s safety has grown manifold. With a profound understanding of what is happening around us, it is time we realise the gravity of this issue and join hands for a fruitful culmination of efforts and measures.
While there are many cases of crime against women that are reported and brought to the forefront, there are a lot more instances that go unreported and the misdoings persist. The list is exhaustive.
As states grapple to battle it out, Telangana comes out as a success story with IPS Swati Lakra, the Additional DGP (Women Safety) leading from the front. The opportunity to do something exclusively for women finally materialised when the 1995-batch IPS officer got posted as the Additional CP (Crime) of Hyderabad Police.
“When I was posted as Additional CP (Crime) Hyderabad, I had almost 20 years of experience in the police department having served in various capacities in many departments. I had seen the kind of problems that women faced. Throughout those years, I understood that a lot needs to be done,” she said.
In 2014, the Chief Minister of the newly-constituted state came up with the ‘Committee on Issues relating to Safety and Security of Women and Girls in Telangana State’ headed by IAS Poonam Malakondaiah.
Lakra was also one of the members of the committee that had made around 80 recommendations to the Chief Minister.
“I was Inspector General of Police (Training) at that time. The Chief Minister asked me to go to Hyderabad and take up the issue of women’s safety there and put particular influence that the fairer sex should feel safe. This was a huge responsibility and an opportunity as well to do something for women,” Lakra said.
It was then that the SHE teams and all other women-centric initiatives began in Telangana. “In order to get any initiative done, it is important to have a political will. My Commissioner of Police then was very supportive and we did a lot of work together as a team,” she added.
Revamping the infrastructure:
To enable reforms in the police force, it is important to pay sufficient heed to police infrastructure. In 2014, with the birth of a new state, a lot of emphasis was given to this arena. “If we expect the police to give their hundred percent, we need to equip them with a certain kind of infrastructural support,” said Lakra.
Many new patrol vehicles were provided to the police department, including Innovas well-equipped with all the necessary equipment that the cops required. Moreover, all the police stations were revamped so that every police personnel gets a proper working environment. “If the workplace where our personnel work is shabby, they also do not feel empowered,” added Lakra. In addition to this, every police station, depending on their category, was given a certain amount as investigation charges too.
Since women police personnel had to go for bandobast for long durations and stay in the same place without moving, they have been provided with mobile restrooms in the form of buses, having clean toilets.
Well-equipped cyber crime police stations are also functional. Talking about the importance of infrastructure in fighting cybercrime, Lakra said: “If we are not ahead of the cybercriminals, we will not be able to do justice to the victims. Our Women Safety Wing will also be shortly equipped with world-class equipment and software. We are also working on capacity building of our police personnel so that they can use the latest tools and technology in order to detect crimes against women.”
Bharosa was established in Hyderabad in 2016 as a society. Its main objective is to provide integrated support to women and children who have been subjected to abuse — physical, sexual, financial or emotional. The day-to-day functioning of these one-stop centres is run by the police department.
While speaking about the origin of this concept, Lakra said: “When I was posted in Hyderabad, we noticed that women and children who were abused had to run from pillar to post to report about the crime for no fault of theirs simply because of procedural lapses. In order to help them, we came up with the idea of a one-stop centre by which women and children could be supported in every way, especially those who were victims of rape cases and needed the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.”
The Bharosa centre in Hyderabad was the first-of-its-kind. At that time, the Sakhi centres, formulated by the Union government, were not functional. The centre is fully equipped with psychologists, doctors, legal advisors, a medical clinic, support personnel who help the victims, people who ensure awareness among them and those who impart skill development training to them as well.
In the case of Nipun Saxena and Another versus Union of India and Others, the Supreme Court had chalked out what the POCSO courts should be like and had stated that the Bharosa centre in Hyderabad should be considered as a model and such one-stop centres should be constructed in all the districts of the country.
Lakra explained: “It is a huge recognition for us. We are now working to ensure that every district across Telangana has one Bharosa centre. Currently, we have it in four districts and soon we will have it in another six.”
While talking about challenges in establishing such a centre, she said: “The biggest hurdle was to get all the stakeholders under one platform and recognise the requirement of such a place. Convincing the judiciary to establish a court there so that Magistrates can record statements on video conference was difficult. At the same time, it was also difficult to convince the health department to have a clinic at the Bharosa centre and depute a doctor there. In order to have a world-class centre and run it the way we are running, it needs funds. At the end of the day, the Women and Child Department of Telangana along with all the other stakeholders cooperated,” Lakra added.
The Bharosa centres are receptive to community funding through CSR who have assisted not only in the construction of these units but in running them as well. “We have got a lot of support from various government departments, especially the Women and Child Department, the Health Department of Telangana, the judiciary, the NGOs, including experts like psychologists and all other stakeholders,” Lakra acknowledged.
Ensuring safe workplace:
The Sexual Harassment of Workplace Act 2013 necessitates the employers to ensure that all employees know the mechanisms by which they can report charges of sexual harassment, how to get redressal and all the organisational structures like the Internal Complaints Committee are put in place by the employee.
“The employers should let their employees know about the legal mechanism. The employees should themselves be aware of such norms and compel their employers to set up mechanisms of sexual grievance redressal. From our end, we are also trying to increase the awareness regarding this Act and ensure that the guidelines are strictly followed,” said Lakra.
Gender inequality begins at home:
“Once the family starts to discriminate between a boy-child and a girl-child, the process of gender inequality sets in. This is because the superiority of men is normalised at home. So at first, we need to change our own mindset, both of men as well as women,” she said.
While talking about the need to start teaching gender equality from an early age, she added: “It is important to catch them young. From the initial school days, we should have a curriculum that teaches gender equality through innovative or playful means.”
Report crimes against children:
The POCSO Act has made the process of reporting sexual crimes against children simpler. Thus, more crimes are being reported now. “The increase in reporting is a positive outcome of the Act since we are able to take action against those who otherwise would have gone scot-free and pose harm to other children as well. It is important to ensure that there is no case that goes unreported. It is also important to ensure that the cases end in conviction.”
Police personnel and people from the Bharosa centres visit schools to talk about safe touch and unsafe touch to the children and make the teachers aware of how to recognise child abuse. This has helped in generating further awareness among the community and getting more cases out.
According to the Supreme Court guidelines, a police investigation in such cases needs to be completed in two months. In the Women Safety Wing, there is a task force in place that reviews all the cases of the POCSO Act to ensure that the charge-sheets are filed on time and the trial is completed on a fast-track basis.
The Women Safety Wing of the Telangana Police runs the women ‘Safety Club’, which is a volunteering programme led by students. The police are in partnership with 30 colleges along with the faculty and the students. Every college has 25 students who are volunteers of the Telangana Police.
With the support of a few NGOs, these volunteers act as a bridge between those who need help and the police department. “This helps us in having our eyes and ears across the community and they can help other people through us,” said Lakra.
At present, the police department is also approaching different schools to educate them about cybercrime. Every school will be having young students who can also act as cyber volunteers, trained by experts. This initiative, termed the Cyber Congress, will help them to reach out easily to the cops. “We would also be having a portal soon that will help us analyse what kind of work our volunteers are doing in schools and colleges,” she added.
Lakra is also a mother to two young girls. Though balancing her responsibilities as a cop and a mother can be challenging, she said: “I have been able to sail through very smoothly owing to the support of my family. It has not been much of a problem for me.”
She further added: “My father was the first person who had helped me. We were three brothers and sisters. I was the youngest. My sister was the eldest. Throughout my childhood, I had never come across any kind of discrimination in my family. My father wanted all the three of us to study well and do something in our lives. Because of his steadfast support, we are in such a position today and are pretty proud of what we do. “My husband has given me unconditional support. We always try to understand what’s best for our family and try to fulfil that.”
Need of the hour:
“Stepping into the shoes of a police officer has always been an encouraging experience for me. I have never faced any kind of discrimination. Today, women in khaki are needed as much as their male peers. It is heartening that most of the governments in India today have given 33 percent reservation to women in the police departments so that more women can join the force. When 50 percent of our population are women, we should also be having 50 percent women in the police department. So, I think that’s the need of the hour.”