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Promoting fearlessness: Domestic violence hotline reaches women in India

rotary phoneWomen in India have one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world. And yet, according to studies, they're among the least likely to seek out help for a number of reasons, including fear of reprisal and being ostracized from their communities.

But a new toll-free telephone hotline called  181 Abhayam ­— meaning fearlessness — has somehow broken down those barriers and successfully connected with thousands of women in Gujarat, India. That's according to a Stanford-led study published in the May issue of the Bulletin of the World Health Organization.

“Women in India rarely feel empowered or safe enough to seek out help,” said Jennifer Newberry, MD, an emergency medicine instructor at Stanford and lead author of the study. “Less than 1 percent who need help will go to police or to their doctor or get mental health support.”

The new hotline, started by Gujarat's state government and tried out first as a pilot project in the state of Gujarat, offers a range of services to women including brief counseling over the phone, connection to a mental-health services and other helping agencies if requested, and the availability of a rescue van that can be dispatched immediately to the scene.

“The idea of having a rescue van is pretty remarkable,” Newberry said. “This is an all-female staffed hotline, with all-female counselors answering the phone lines. It creates a safe place.”

According to the study, over the first 10 months after its launch in 2014, the helpline reached 10,000 women in distress. Women — and sometimes men asking for help on behalf of women — called the line for a variety of issues, including violence, financial vulnerability, mental health issues, suicide concerns, reproductive and family health issues. Seventy-nine percent of the calls required an intervention. In March 2015, the rescue services were expanded across the state of Gujarat to include 43 vans. Over the next nine months, the number of calls jumped to 73,000, the researchers found.

“What’s fascinating about this system is that it started with the government,” Newberry told me. “They got the right people to the table, and hired female social workers as response officers to answer the phone. Women will use this hotline.”

Previously: I feel lighter: a look at domestic violence in Bangladesh
Photo by Martin Snicer Photography

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