NEW DELHI – The phones ring without a break.
On one line, a girl says she was raped by a neighbor.
“Please do not tell my parents because they will stop me from going out of the house,” the caller, who says she’s 15, pleads with a help-line staffer. “Do not tell the police either because I don’t want the police to land at my door.”
On a nearby phone, another caller says she is being threatened by the family of a man she reported to the police for harassing her. And on another line, a mother says she is rushing her teenage daughter to the hospital after she was assaulted by a group of men.
The busy New Delhi help line was set up by the city government after a fatal gang rape six months ago set off nationwide protests over sexual assaults on women and prompted complaints that calls to an existing police hotline in New Delhi often went unanswered or were met with indifference.
The new 181 help line has received more than 138,000 calls since it was launched at the end of December — stark evidence, its staff say, of a newfound courage among Indian women to report crimes that they may have suffered silently just months ago.
Women call to say they are being stalked and molested on the streets, raped, harassed via the phone and Facebook, beaten by husbands or the victims of acid attacks by spurned lovers. They call from crowded shopping plazas, from public transport buses, while walking home late in the evening, and from their own homes.
In traditional Indian society where families worry that reporting a rape could make a woman the subject of ridicule and scorn, experts say many sexual assaults go unreported. But something does appear to be changing. In the first three months of this year, 1,153 cases of rape and molestation were reported in the capital, nearly double the number reported in the same period last year.
“Don’t cry, little one; just give us the man’s address,” Geeta Pandey, the help-line supervisor, told the caller, who worried that her attacker had made a video recording of the incident with his cellphone and might make it public. “We will get the police to go to his house and confiscate his cellphone. Meanwhile, try to talk to your mother about this.”
The new help line, usually staffed by five women, occupies a windowless corner room in the office of city’s 75-year-old chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, New Delhi’s top elected official since 1998, and it derives some of its influence because it was her idea. But it has no power over the police department, which, under New Delhi’s complex maze of authorities and jurisdictions, reports to the central government rather than Dikshit’s.
Adding to the frustration of those working to improve women’s safety in New Delhi is the fact that the city police deploy at least two-thirds of its force to protecting politicians and bureaucrats, rather than dealing with ordinary crimes.
“A help line can be truly effective only if the police’s attitude changes,” said Kavita Krishnan, a key anti-rape campaigner who mobilized students in the December protests. “It is still an uphill task just to be heard by the police and get a complaint registered.”
But the unprecedented uproar against rape in December and a subsequent anti-rape law that criminalized offenses such as stalking, voyeurism and acid attacks — and prescribes the death penalty for fatal rapes — has increased the confidence among women to speak out more freely.