For women and girls across India, navigating public spaces is not easy. Street sexual harassment is a reality they have to live with – yet, is there a solution to the menace? Is it possible to file complaints in every instance of harassment, and even if complaints are filed, is that enough to stop people from repeating their predatory behaviour?
While no one method is either perfect or enough, the Vijayawada police have been trying something new to tackle harassment. Take this case for instance: The police caught over ten people red handed, while they were harassing women. But instead of filing an FIR against them, the police decided to bring the case to the notice of the Mahila Mitra team, who in turn asked the police to call the parents of the offenders.
And in the presence of their families, the offenders were counselled, and the Mahila Mitra team followed up with the youth to ensure that they did not repeat their behaviour.
This isn’t a one-off instance. In just the last year, 2207 offenders have been counselled.
But does it help? According to the police, it definitely does.
Goutam Sawang, the city’s Commissioner of Police, says that outcome is reformative, and none of the people counselled have repeated their offence.
Being a community-led programme, it helps curb harassment in its early stages. Here, first-time offenders, a large proportion of whom are minors, are counselled when they are caught for smaller offences.
This is part of an initiative launched a year ago, when the Vijayawada Police constituted Mahila Mitra and Mahila Raksha programmes to address women’s issues and make the city safe. For this, the Vijayawada Police collaborated with 42 volunteers.
The department has now launched CLAPP or Community Led Action Programme by Police, in collaboration with the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care, in partnership with the city-based NGO Vasavya Mahila Mandali (VMM). A four-day workshop was organised to sensitise and train Mahila Mitras, Mahila Rakshaks and police officers, which also provided demonstrations on understanding and tackling violence.
On attending the workshop, a head constable, Ravikumar, said he understood many things about the severity of crimes against women, and how women feel when they approach the police. “Patriarchy exists and must be challenged. Work is gendered, but that is just a social construct. It needs to be challenged,” he said.
"The work we women do at home was being treated as unproductive and useless. It was stereotyped. Now, I understand that if things are explained well, women will break those walls of stereotypes," says Head Constable Shiva Kumari, who also attended the workshop.
Chennupati Vidya, the founder of VMM, appreciated the police’s cooperation and commitment towards women’s safety. "70-80% offenders are below the age of 18. A lot needs to be done to curb the menace of harassment at an early stage," she said.
But how does it work?
The teams have adopted the SARA method – Scanning, Analysis, Response and Assessment – in order to keep a check on harassment. They counsel the offender, understand their background, see if it is possible to help them, and regularly follow up.
They have also provided career counselling and opportunities for employment to some of them.
"The SARA model is working better than traditional methods. It is becoming easy to curb gender-based violence by knowing the source and understanding the reformative mechanism. Many (offenders) want to be part of this initiative," says B Keerthy, a representative of VMM.
It is important to note, however, that not every case is taken up for counselling. If the officers believe the offence is serious, they ensure that a case is filed.
According to ACP Shravani, "The initiative by the Vijayawada City Police is setting an example to combat violence against women in public spaces in the state."