The phones ring without a break.
On one, 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 attendant. “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 against sexual assaults on women and prompted complaints that calls to a 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 says, of a newfound courage among Indian women to report crimes that they might have suffered silently just months ago.
Women call to say they are being stalked and molested on the streets, raped, harassed by phone and Facebook, beaten by their husbands, or attacked with acid by spurned lovers. They call from crowded shopping plazas, from public buses, while walking home late in the evenings and from their homes.
In this traditional 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, 359 cases of rape were reported in the capital, more than 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 a 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 the city’s 75-year-old chief minister, Sheila Dikshit. She has been New Delhi’s top elected official since 1998, and the help line 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 national government rather than Dikshit’s.
Further frustrating those working to improve women’s safety in New Delhi is the fact that at least two-thirds of the city’s police force is deployed to protect 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 leading anti-rape campaigner who mobilized students during the December demonstrations. “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 criminalizes offenses such as stalking, voyeurism and acid attacks — and prescribes the death penalty for fatal rapes — has increased confidence among women to speak out more freely.
“It is as though a lid has been lifted,” said Anita Daniel, 37, who worked at an insurance company before joining the help-line staff. “Unlike my generation, the new generation’s resolve to speak out will force the authorities to change.”
“It is very satisfying to work here because I can see the change happening right in front of me,” she added. “Every day, with every call.”
The city police department is also stepping up its efforts. In early June, it began an advertising campaign aimed at women, with the tagline: “Speak up. Leave the rest to us.” But coordination between the police and the help line remains difficult.
“Where are you standing right now? Go to a crowded area, maybe a bus stand, and wait,” Munira Rizwan, a help-line attendant, told a caller who said she was being followed by three men making lewd comments. “Do not panic; we will send a police vehicle to you immediately.”
“Come on, pick up the phone,” Pandey muttered in frustration after she dialed the police.
Three months ago, a caller dialed 181 from her cellphone to say she was surrounded by a small group of men threatening to attack her, recalled Khadijah Faruqui, the head of the help line. The phone line was live. The help-line staff members could hear the men, but they could not get the police to track the caller’s location in time. She was found raped and murdered the next day, Faruqui said.
Faruqui has asked the government and the telephone companies to provide a location tracker. Software upgrades are also underway to cut the time in answering calls and to improve coordination with the police. Faruqui wants to train the city’s hospitals and women’s legal services to respond more quickly when her help line forwards a complaint.
Some callers seek advice on marrying lovers of whom their parents do not approve. Others call when their money and cellphones are stolen on a bus or Metro. Perhaps the most disturbing calls are those from girls, Faruqui said.
“Sometimes young girls call us in the dead of the night, whisper into the phone that an older man is abusing them,” said Faruqui, adding that about 20 percent of the total calls come from children.
“The December gang rape was not an isolated incident,” Daniel said, as she handed off to the next shift. “Terrible things are taking place all the time.”