How To Do Women’s Safety Right? Just Ask Swati Lakra
This pioneer cop is the woman behind the She Teams initiative, a women’s safety police mechanism that is proving to be highly effective in Telangana.
As the initiative continues to find success, and takers in the form of other Indian states, Swati Lakra tells us what it took to get this movement going.
Women’s safety – a burning issue of the current times, or perhaps of all times. In this age, however, harassment and the associated indignation have reached such a crescendo that condemnation and lip-service measures on the part of the authorities no longer suffice. What people want to see is effective and prominent assuaging measures.
Work is happening in this area, and several state governments and their police departments have come out with initiatives like safety apps and emergency numbers; states like Karnataka have pink vans deployed particularly to deal with women’s complaints, and other states like Uttar Pradesh have had in place a ‘woman power line 1090’, which responds to women’s emergency calls.
One such initiative is the “SHE Teams” of Hyderabad police – now being replicated throughout Telangana – which has seen considerable success since its launch four years ago.
The efficacy of the initiative, both in terms of earning the trust of the people as well as deterring wrongdoers – and then raising the number of convictions – has been established. And acknowledged as well – at least seven other states’ police teams have come down to understand SHE Teams’ functioning in order to replicate it back home.
In the last article, we detailed the functioning of the SHE Teams, and also ‘Bharosa’ – the other initiative of the Telangana government – for domestic and sexual violence support for women and children. Behind the scenes, though, surely there are softer aspects that are equally important, and which need to be kept in mind when replicating the system.
As Swati Lakra, Inspector General of Police (Women’s Safety), Telangana, the originator and face of the initiative, points out, “It is not a force that you just unleash into the crowd and expect them to do things. Even as it gets replicated in other districts of Telangana, we have to tell them how to go about it in a systematic manner.”
Lakra would know. When this 1995-batch Indian Police Service officer was handpicked and made in charge of a women’s safety initiative, there was no precedent in India. The effective SHE Teams that we hear about now have come up through a slow process of unfolding, and incorporating many a lesson.
Her tenacity and nuanced approach helped, and her problem-solving skills got honed further, as she led Telangana police in this crucial area of women’s safety. Lakra’s successful powering and steering of the initiative has won her several awards over the last three years, the latest being the “Pride of Telangana” award, last month.
In an interview to Swarajya, Lakra said what it really took to make this initiative successful.
Telangana’s SHE Teams and Bharosa are acknowledged throughout the country as being the most successful women’s safety initiatives. We are curious about how you achieved this success. First, does it matter where the idea originates – the starting point?
Yes, absolutely. The powers that be have to be interested. In our case, the trigger was the Chief Minister’s experience of being confronted with tough questions about women’s safety in Telangana. That is when he asked the Singapore authorities how he could replicate their level of development here. Since he was very keen on development, he realised he could not have it without a commitment to women’s safety. That’s when he formed a committee of senior officers and asked us for recommendations on how to go about it.
How did you proceed?
Women’s safety is such a wide concept! It was important to understand what the existing issues were and where the problems lay. Upon interacting with all sections of women – working women, students, homemakers, public representatives – we found the most common complaint was harassment in public places and while travelling. The Chief Minister zeroed in on this of the nearly 80 different recommendations the committee gave.
The Chief Minister summoned me, and from Inspector General (Training), I was made the Additional Commissioner of Police (Crimes and SIT). It came as a shock; being given the responsibility of making the city safe for women was a huge responsibility. Luckily, I had the support of the Commissioner of Police, Mr M. Mahendar Reddy. The seniors’ or your bosses’ support matters a lot. You cannot do many things on your own because there are so many requirements – funds, infrastructure, manpower, and others, which you cannot work without. Thus, with the required paraphernalia in the Commissionerate – the detectives, the women police station, cyber-crime police station – we set out.
We know about the structure and function of the teams. Was any special training required?
First, there was no prior experience of any state, so our ideas came from our brainstorming. The first decision was to form teams.
After that, it took us one whole month to get ready, because I wanted the teams to be properly trained and be passionate about what they are doing.
The first thing I felt was needed was a change in the police personnel’s personality. Because, after all, they are also from the same society! For that, I would tell them to go back home and talk to their wife, sisters, and daughters and ask what it feels like when they were harassed by someone. Until and unless they felt it, they would only do it as a job.
I wanted them to be passionate about what they were doing. And they had to be proud about what they were doing, not take it up unwillingly. So I concentrated on the mindset of my police personnel first.
It took us a whole month to groom them, to train them, before actually sending them to the field. We also gave them soft skills, because they were talking to ladies. We repeatedly told them how to talk, what to talk – and what not to talk. Because many a time, they themselves may have some opinions, but that must not come in the way of doing their job. They must work as per the laws. We maintain a checklist for them to cross off when conducting awareness programmes, for instance.
Then, I didn’t want our teams to become a task force that is uncontrollable. And we are proud to tell you that in these three years, we have not got any adverse remarks against them. And that is very important for us – because one small fault or instance of bad review, and our credibility suffers.
That, too, they are dealing with ladies! Though the name is “SHE”, four in each team are male constables and only one is a lady constable.
Did you have to work for acceptance among the public?
I remember when we had a press conference to announce the launch. The first reaction was: “Oh okay, yet another initiative.” Of course, there were many questions on how we would handle it, being a hot topic.
Our first challenge was to let people know that we exist. Only if they know we are there would they be able to approach us. We began with awareness through posters, advertisements, and publicity through other media.
Initially, when the awareness had not caught on, I was a bit scared that if we went and nabbed someone, we would get attacked by the public, because our people were in mufti (civilian attire), and no one would really know who they are. That’s when we decided that everyone will have identity cards; their vehicle would be parked at a distance while their eyes rove the area, and they observed. If they saw something was really wrong, they would act.
Initially, when nabbed, people would deny they had done anything wrong. That’s when we realised we have to produce evidence. All our police personnel in SHE teams then began carrying discreet cameras to record when they see aberrant behaviour. This is why we get 100 per cent conviction in our cases. When we do not get proper evidence, we give them a warning and let them off, but then we have the information about them.
I remember the first time we went out, all prepared, briefed, and ready, towards the railway station, we found nothing even after several hours, and my team was dejected – “Madam, koi nahin mila! (Madam, we didn’t get anyone!)”. Soon enough, though, we got our first case: our team was observing a man harassing a girl. He followed her into a bus and alighted at the next stop. Our team also boarded and got off the bus along with them. At one point, when he tried to shove a paper into her hands, our people nabbed him. The first case was from Jharkhand – incidentally, I belong to Jharkhand!
We started in 2014, and by 2015, people knew about us being a team that would help them. So, there was a steep rise in reporting such cases, as we got a lot of complaints and acted on them, and we kept nabbing wrongdoers.
When our teams are in public places, and if there’s nothing amiss, they open their charts etc, and start talking about SHE Teams, spreading awareness; similarly, they board a bus and, if everything is okay, they start telling people about the teams. So wherever we get a chance, we try to inform as many people as possible. And people listen with interest.
We built on this idea only with experience – how do we ensure people know us? Anyway, when we on the field, and not nabbing people, we utilise our time to talk about the initiative, distribute pamphlets.
We are trying to get more active on social media too, and hire professionals to write and operate social media pages. Right now, our deputy superintendents of police have to double up as writers.
Does being a lady officer help when establishing a system of women’s safety?
I think it does. (Smiles).
Initially, I used to get all the cases and was very much involved in what was happening. Every case they nabbed was brought before me. Many of them were boys, and while talking to them, I realised that they were children – 15-16 years of age. Earlier, we were doing the counselling. Then we realised we are not the experts.
That’s when we took the help of professionals and psychologists. When we nab these minors, it is part of our mandate to get them counselled through professional counsellors. Say, we catch hold of about 20 in a month, it is difficult to counsel each person individually. So we call them together for a counselling session.
Why are minors getting so involved in these things these days?
Sadly, most of those being nabbed were minors; now, it has really come down – to 20 per cent.
I asked the psychologists why they (the minors) were doing this, and I was told that many of them say that they didn’t know what they were doing was wrong. So it is the upbringing.
So now, in our awareness campaigns in schools and colleges, we also focus separately on boys, because the problem is there. It’s good to see such wonderful response from boys.
These days, we hear cases where girls trouble boys first. Don’t they also need to be counselled?
Yes, in fact, sometimes people actually tell me – why don’t you form ‘HE Teams’ also? (Laughs).
Maybe it is true that women are rogues, too, sometimes, but definitely the percentage is very low. And my point is, if a boy has a problem, he can go to the police station. SHE Teams is precisely for those ladies who are unable to come out – we have given them an opportunity to come out and complain, and we ensure that their details are kept confidential. In fact, often we get complaints from celebrities also, but not revealing the identity of the victims is part of our mandate.
Any challenges you faced that you learnt from?
When SHE Teams started becoming popular, everybody knew it was for women and that we respond immediately. So we started getting cases where it appeared to be a women’s harassment issue, but at the bottom of it all, there was a financial issue or a land dispute, or a love triangle. Though not obvious immediately, that would become obvious during the course of the enquiry. We were very clear about taking up only women’s harassment cases, so these cases with other motives were referred to the police station.
It did waste our time, but we have to be patient and treat each victim or person as a genuine case.
There have been very smart ladies who have tried to use the SHE Teams also, but we have then had to be smarter.
Hats off to you, your image remains untarnished. It’s not as if it would have been smooth sailing all through?
The image of SHE Teams did not get tainted, but there have been times when people tried to tarnish the image of our sub-inspectors. That was the worst thing that could have happened to me.
For instance, in one particular love-triangle case, a lady came to us complaining about someone harassing her. She came with her baby one evening, and our sub-inspector spoke well with her. Out of concern, he asked her if she would be able to go back alone, and that she should inform him that she reached home safely. He behaved in the most professional manner. But she tried to implicate him, as if he was harassing her. This complaint reached the Commissioner, and that became a big issue. But an enquiry we conducted helped prove his innocence.
Given all this, it would actually take a lot to keep the motivation of your people up?
We try to reward them in every good case. Then the fact that they are working in the SHE Teams itself is a matter of pride for them. Of course, that came after a lot of hard work. Initially, no one wanted to work in this kind of an initiative, as this was a new concept. But I think everyone worked very hard to get to where we are.
Now, one has heard many states are coming to learn from you -- this is one of the most-watched initiatives in India; but still why are people not able to emulate it along these lines?
See, it is not a force that you just unleash into the crowd and expect them to do things. It is the responsibility of the senior officers to give them a job chart as to what is required to be done, what to speak – and what not to speak; all this is very important before you send out the teams. These have to be the absolute essential backdrop. The officers themselves have to be motivated.
It is also important to have a systematic way of functioning. That is why even in Telangana, when it was decided to be replicated in the districts, we gave training everywhere, and which is going on right now. And what we get to hear always is – “we were working, but not like this” – that is, not in a systematic manner. It is important that there are standard operating procedures in place.
So, six or more states came to learn from you? Is UP is one of them?
UP, I’m not sure whether they tried to replicate this model, but they do have their anti-Romeo squads.
How does one ensure that people are not scared of such Teams that are there for ensuring women's safety? Does the answer to this lie in what you said about sensitisation?
Absolutely. Sensitisation of our own personnel is most important.
Is there any role of the central government in such initiatives? Funds or anything?
There is no role as far as the working is concerned, because what we are doing is part of our policing job only. Earlier, the same thing was happening from the police station; the only thing is that the priorities for women’s safety complaints were much lower.
As far as funds go, we didn't ask earlier. But funds are always required, as there is a lot to be done. Funds are needed for equipment, vehicles, for campaigning material and software – apart from stalking physically, there is also stalking virtually, on phone or social media. Now, the centre has agreed for funding for Safe City project under the Nirbhaya Fund – we will be getting close to Rs 282 crore – however, we are yet to receive it.
So, the centre has no role to play? What about the Ministry for Women and Child Development (WCD)?
Not the centre, but the state WCD Ministry has given funds for Bharosa, the support centre for women and child victims already affected by violence, particularly rape and child abuse. We have made Bharosa into a society so that it can be financially independent; we are open to CSR initiatives in this, with all tax deductions benefits available and in place.
Is there any duplication here – there is already a domestic violence cell in states, no matter how intimidating, dilapidated the premises…?
I’m not sure about the duplication of effort.
From the police perspective, it is a selfish motive: we want these cases of rape and POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) to get convicted. We help these cases to get conviction.
When we started Bharosa initially, because we didn’t have too many cases at that time, we began taking domestic violence cases also. But now that we are so bogged down by them, we have now segregated the counsellors. We don’t say no to anybody who comes to the centre. So, with so many cases of domestic violence coming, we signed MoUs with some good NGOs and started sending some of the cases there, while monitoring them.
Basically, this is a 360-degree way of taking care of women. One is a SHE teams, which is a proactive approach, and Bharosa is a support for women and children victims. SHE Teams is a prevention initiative, and Bharosa is kind of curative.
SHE Teams is for harassment in public. But what about the urgent cause of prevention of rape cases?
I believe that what SHE Teams is doing is nipping it in the bud itself. If a person thinks he won’t be caught, he will have no fear. It would begin with touching inappropriately or something, and if he is not discouraged actively, he could try to go further. So in that sense, we have definitely helped prevent cases of harassment that could potentially turn into serious sexual offences.
But basically this is in public places. What about cases that happen in solitary locations – like what happened in Kathua?
Slowly, as people become aware of SHE Teams and Bharosa, a perception will be created. Already I do believe that deterrence has set in – and that makes a big difference. We are continually making efforts to create awareness – through outreach programmes in slums, schools, etc, and talk about sexual abuse, child sexual abuse, etc.
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