Hyderabad: Hers is a name that keeps men in check. Inspector-General, law and order, Swati Lakra founded her safety wing for women, and it includes SHE Teams and Bharosa, making it somewhat a powerhouse.
The first of its kind, SHE Teams was formed on October 24, 2014. Ms Lakra recalls, “When Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao visited Singapore, they asked him about the safety of women in India. This concerned him. Soon after his arrival, he formed a committee comprising senior officers. I was a part of it.”
The committee met all the sections of society to identify the concerns of women and address them. “We submitted nearly 80 recommendations to the CM. In response, he said, ‘I want the streets of Hyderabad to be safe and free from all harassment.’ Then, after asking me where I was posted, he asked me to come to Hyderabad,” she said.
The move, it can be said rightfully, has made the streets of Hyderabad safer for women. “We resolved to nab them redhanded and make an example to reiterate that ill behaviour will not be tolerated,” Ms Lakra explained. “Public places belong equally to both men and women. If women abstain from going outdoors because it’s unsafe, then we are ignoring the rights of 50 per cent of the population.”
Ms Lakra considers this her calling. “If I don’t do it as a policewoman, then who else will? If not now, then when,” she asked.
Ms Lakra says the police made their way as they went along. “We formed the teams but did not know where to start. This was uncharted territory for us, and we mostly learnt from experience.”
The first bunch of violators they nabbed claimed to be innocent, so the cops were given pen cameras. Since the officers didn’t find themselves comfortable with pen cameras, they eventually switched to using their mobile cameras. They were also given audio equipment to record the perpetrator.
Their next hurdle arose when they found women were not willing to complain. “We were stuck with evidence and hostile victims who asked us to resolve the issue without their involvement.” So, the police decided to register cases suo motu.
The Hyderabad City Police Act and the IPC contain sections under which petty cases can be filed, and the SHE teams used that to their advantage. Thereafter, courts began sentencing violators to three to four days in prison and a fine. Some were dealt social punishments like cleaning hospitals or standing on roads with placards.
The SHE Teams were trained for a month, especially in soft skills. “We had to train the teams in making victims comfortable and confident about opening up to them. We also focused on gender sensitisation — a class I took.”
The SHE Teams made the first arrest when they nabbed a boy who was stalking a girl at a bus stop and attempting to pass his number on a chit to her. “We nabbed him when we noticed he was trying to shove the chit in her hand. His phone number on the chit was our evidence,” Ms Lakra said.
The SHE teams encountered another problem — a large number of the culprits were minors. “Just calling up parents was enough punishment in such cases. In fact, that was their biggest deterrent,” she said.
Minors needed to learn what they had done was wrong, and that marked the beginning of counselling sessions. Psychologists were roped in to counsel minor offenders pro bono. Soon after, the SHE teams found that many boys had no idea what they were doing was unlawful. “Upbringing counts,” Ms Lakra said.
It appears, however, that the boys are willing to learn. Initially, nearly 80 per cent of the culprits were minors. This statistic has revised itself now as the percentage of minor culprits has reduced to 20 per cent, thanks to awareness campaigns.
Women were hesitant to file official complaints, so the police created several platforms to facilitate that, namely dial 100, a Whatsapp number for every district, Facebook, Twitter, and the SHE teams’ official website.
“Since there is still some stigma and fear attached to approaching cops at a police station, we set up offices in office buildings to make it easier for victims to approach us,” Ms Lakra said. Now, most complaints are received through walk-ins, while a fair share of the same is received through Whats-App, especially in rural areas.
The police started its first Bharosa centre in 2016. "Bharosa centres primarily cater to women and children who report to have undergone violence or abuse of any kind. The police has been told to bring all rape and POSCO victims to Bharosa centres,” Ms Lakra said.
Such cases entail mandatory procedures, namely medical examination of survivors, statement recorded by a magistrate, the statement of the police officer. For this, victims are sent to hospitals, courts and police stations. In order to prevent revictimisation of victims, the administration decided to simplify the process. “Watching traumatised victims spend hours in courts and hospitals agonised us. We realised they need our support,” Ms Lakra said.
Bharosa centres have psychologists, legal officers and nurses, and request the health department to send doctors to conduct medical examinations. For the first time ever, magistrates are now recording statements over videoconference. Often, survivors are taken away from their respective triggers and accommodated in hostels.
Ms Lakra said the Supreme Court has taken note of Bharosa centres. In Nipun Saxena vs the Union of India, the court said there should be a one-stop centre for survivors and mentioned Bharosa centres as an example. "People from other states have been coming to take a look and replicate us," she said.
Child-friendly courts were started in 2018 and are located adjacent to Bharosa centres. If a magistrate cannot take a survivor's statement over video, then he or she can come over to their respective Bharosa centre to do so. Unlike in Delhi, where a similar centre is located in court premises, Bharosa centres are located in regular commercial buildings.
Bharosa has been integrated into society to make the initiative financially independent. As a part of the government, they could not accept corporate social responsibilIty funds. “We are a society, and we have a government body which is led by the home minister, DGP, principal secretary and a working committee. Now, people are coming forward to sponsor the centres," she said. There are two Bharosa centres - one in Hyderabad and one in Vikrabad.
The plan is to set up one Bharosa centre each in the Old City, Cyberabad and Rachakonda. The teams are also looking forward to establishing a forensic lab especially for cases involving female victims.
The US government awarded Ms Lakra the distinguished Humphrey Leadership Award for her work.
The youngest of three siblings, Ms Lakra comes from a pampered background. "I have been told repeatedly that I was an accident,” she chuckled. However, everything changed after she moved to Delhi for her graduation at Lady Sriram College. “I gained confidence there. I began preparing for my civils after my post-graduation in Delhi.”
She faced several problems while commuting in buses in Delhi. “But I had a roommate who was very protective of me,” she said. She did not opt for IPS. “I love my service. It has been an exciting challenge thus far,” she said.
Being a woman in the services, it is important to be professionally competent and gain respect from everybody in service. “Although men do not have to prove themselves at every juncture, women do.”
Ms Lakra’s batch comprised of 82 trainees of whom only 13 were women. “We were given no concession whatsoever. One of our batchmates was very good at physical and outdoor activities. She was better than the boys, in fact,” she said.
On the significance of a support system for women, Ms Lakra said, “To do anything well, one must be stress-free on all fronts. My family, my in-laws and my husband all help me destress. I'm extremely grateful for all the support I have,” she confessed....