Calls to national helpline for women are growing, but it is accessible to only a few

  • The National Women Commission’s 24-hour toll-free number has eased reporting process for violence against women, but it needs to expand beyond Kathmandu to be fully effective
- Tsering D Gurung, Kathmandu

Apr 2, 2019-

Every ten minutes, a woman somewhere in Nepal dials 1145, the helpline operated by the National Women Commission, seeking assistance. Majority of these calls are made by survivors of domestic violence who are either looking to report incidents of abuse or calling to inquire about the support services offered by the group.

Since its launch in December 2017, the 24-hour toll-free helpline supported by the World Bank has received over 70,000 calls. In January alone, more than 5,000 people called the helpline.

“Through word of mouth and advertising, more people have become aware of the helpline and the huge jump in the number of complaints we have registered is proof of that,” said Palita Thapa, the commission’s programme manager.

According to the official data, the commission had registered more than 1,500 cases of gender-based violence through the helpline, referred 1,731 cases to police through an automated referral system, and conducted over 8,000 information sessions with survivors on the helpline.

What sets the commission’s helpline apart from others in operation, officials say, is that it has adopted an integrated approach to addressing gender-based violence. When a person calls the helpline, officials working for the group say they are not only receiving counselling but are also being provided easy access to service providers.

“Oftentimes survivors have to knock on several doors and make multiple calls to different organisations to avail of services,” said Bimala Khadga, a case manager at the commission, noting how this can de-motivate survivors from seeking help. “Our goal with the helpline was to provide a one-stop service centre to survivors of gender-based violence.”

According to official data obtained by the Post, helpline callers received psychosocial counselling, legal counselling, court representation, mediation services, shelter, mental health services, assistance with children’s education.

The helpline is operated from a dingy room on the first floor of the commission’s office in Kathmandu’s Bhadrakali. In total, there is a team of ten operators but only two people work a shift, which is usually eight hours long.

Helpline operators say they undergo several training sessions on handling communication with survivors of abuse and torture before they start their job. Training is focused on understanding what constitutes gender-based violence, learning to listen actively and with empathy, and also evaluating the person’s mental health status, according to officials.

“If we think they are in need of counselling, then we will connect them to our psychosocial counsellor or if they are in immediate danger then we will notify the local police,” Sharada Thapa, a helpline operator, told the Post.

Thapa, who has been working as an operator since the project started, said, at times she feels overwhelmed by the things that she hears from survivors of domestic violence they have been through.

“But then I compose myself and act professionally as we have been trained to do,” she said.

The idea for the helpline was borne during a hackathon organised by the World Bank, International Finance Corporation, and Young Innovations and Computer Association of Nepal in 2013 to identify innovative solutions to address gender-based violence in Nepal.

Three winning applications were combined to create the Fight VAW project, an online platform aimed at easing reporting process for survivors and smoothening coordination among gender-based violence service providers. The platform also tracked service delivery in the Kathmandu district as well as provided information on gender-based violence through stakeholder mapping and media monitoring.

The helpline was modelled after the platform.

Initially designed as a pilot project to serve four districts—Kathmandu, Lalitpur, Bhaktapur and Nuwakot—the helpline quickly transitioned into a national-level initiative after it began receiving calls from all across the country within a month of operation.

Although the helpline has eased the reporting process for survivors, some see it as being ineffectual, particularly in emergency cases.

Earlier this week, Hari Bahadur Tamang called the helpline, seeking help for his neighbour who he said had been badly beaten up by her husband multiple times during the course of the week. Tamang said he had previously reported the man to police who released him after a few hours of detention.

At first, his calls went unanswered. When an operator finally answered the phone, he was told they would contact the local police. The operator asked Tamang to bring the woman to the commission’s office the next day. He was disappointed with their response.

“The way they handle emergency situations needs to improve,” said Tamang, a resident of Rabi Bhawan. “They also need to understand that not all survivors can come to them.”

A day after Tamang called the helpline, police had still not shown up to inquire about the incident.

And while around 35 percent of the calls to the helpline come from outside Kathmandu Valley, neither the helpline nor the commission has a single office outside Kathmandu, limiting its reach significantly.

Usually following a call, helpline operators ask the individual to visit the commission to register a written complaint. A lot of times, however, that is not possible, particularly for survivors in far-flung districts.

“In situations where the women are not able to come to the commission, we connect them to our partner organisations,” said Khadga. “If they are seeking shelter, we connect them to shelter providers in their respective districts; if they are in need of legal counselling then we connect them to our legal partners.”

According to Khadga, the commission has partnered with the Legal Aid and Consultancy Center (LAAC) and the Nepal Bar Association to provide free legal counselling to survivors. Other partner organisations include TPO Nepal, Saathi and CWIN. But most of these organisations are only active in a few districts.

“We understand that for the initiative to be truly successful, we have to expand our operations,” said Thapa, the programme manager. “But for that to happen, the commission also needs to be fully functioning.”

The National Women Commission, an important constitutional body, has been without a chair for over three years since Sheikh Chand Tara’s tenure ended in November 2015. The government has also not appointed any members to the commission since Bhagawati Ghimire, who was serving as the acting chairperson, resigned in October 2017.

As such the commission, which has the authority to formulate policies and programmes concerning the right and interest of women, to recommend changes to existing laws, and to monitor whether the government is meeting its international obligations in regards to protection of women’s rights among others, has been virtually non-functional.

In an interview with the Post, Kundan Aryal, an adviser to Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, said last week that the Council of Ministers had been occupied with preparations for the Investment Summit and therefore all other works had been sidelined.

“You have to understand this is a constitutional body and we have to follow all due processes before making appointments,” said Aryal. “All appointments will be made after mid-April.”

Aryal’s admission is in contrast with the government’s decision to swiftly appoint the heads of other constitutional commissions, including the Election Commission. Last month, the Constitutional Council recommended Dinesh Thapaliya for the post of chief election commissioner immediately after Ayodhi Prasad Yadav retired after completing his six-year term.

Meanwhile, officials at the commission engaged in the project are focused on expanding the hotline’s operations.

“Even if we can set up an outpost for now, we think it will help in increasing our outreach,” said Khadga, the case manager.  “We can take the calls from here but complaints can be registered at the outposts.”

Both World Bank and the commission say they have plans to expand the helpline and operate at the provincial level, starting with Sudurpaschim Province. While the World Bank has allocated $2 million to the project and plans to support the helpline for another year, in the end, officials say the Nepali government will have to take ownership.

“We cannot sustain it in the long run,” said Khadga, “if the government doesn’t step in to take charge and devote resources to this project.”

Published: 03-04-2019 07:00

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