Sector Wide Approach to Strengthening Health ( SWASTH )

Bihar Technical Assistance Support Team (BTAST)
Government of Bihar initiative supported by Department for International Development, UK


Special Cells for Women bring relief to victims of gender-based violence in Patna

Working alongside the police, Special Cells for Women inside police stations offer support to a large number of women harassed by violent husbands or other family members

Special Cells for Women were established in 2013 to provide help and support to victims of domestic violence in Bihar. Based within police stations, each Special Cell is run single-handedly by a trained and experienced woman counsellor who advises, supports and guides the girls and women who reach out to these for help. Set up in 23 blocks of Patna district, these cells were launched by the Women Development Corporation (WDC) in collaboration with the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Bihar, and with financial and technical support through the UK Department for International Development (DfID) funded Sector Wide Approach to Strengthening Health (SWASTH) programme.
Addressing Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) was taken-up as one of the core issues for SWASTH, when evidence showed high levels of such violence in Bihar. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-3 in 2005-06 had shown Bihar to be the most violent state in India, with 59% women reporting spousal violence. A stark and hard-hitting fact that was shown in this study was that 57.4% women and 56.9% men felt such violence was acceptable or justified. This clearly showed that such violence had become much normalised in the local context, wherein not just the perpetrator but also the victims consider it acceptable and therefore tolerate it without attempting to protest or break the vicious practice. Bringing about gender equality in such conditions becomes an uphill task. 
The Special Cells were one amongst the portfolio of interventions supported by the SWASTH programme to address VAWG. Work done by the governments of Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and other states had already shown that all-women police stations and gender sensitisation training programmes lead to positive results. The WDC modelled Bihar’s Special Cells on the highly successful Special Cells of Mumbai, which is a partnership between Tata Institute for Social Sciences and the Mumbai Police.
How does the Special Cell work and what does it do?
Housed within the police-station, the Special Cell is basically a one-room office where the trained counsellor sits. Women who have faced violence and wish to lodge a police complaint are encouraged to share their case details with the Special Cell and to speak to the counsellors. The non-judgemental environment of the Special Cells provides reassurance to women to voice their problems and concerns, so that they can confide in the counsellor and receive support and guidance on how best to address their problem.
The Special Cells’ work is guided through the procedures and guidelines developed by WDC in consultation with the CID. Counsellors first register and understand the cases, provide counselling, and help both parties to come to an agreement. They also conduct follow-ups through six months after the agreement has been arrived at to ensure that there is no relapse of violent incidents. The counsellors use different techniques to solve their cases. For example, in case of harassment through text messages and calls on mobile phones, or abuse through social media networks, counsellors telephone the offenders and speak to them. But this is never a one-time effort and needs constant intervention, sometimes including the threat of a police complaint. The usual approach is to try and arrive at a solution through direct conversations and finally seek a written declaration from the offender that he will not stalk or harass the girl/ woman physically, over phone or online. The counsellors aim at mounting pressure on offenders to ensure that they give up their unwelcome ways. Sometimes, however, it is the fear of a police complaint that works.
Police personnel where the Special Cells are located have been provided special training on women’s issues and domestic violence at regular intervals so that they can work in collaboration with each other. Understanding and addressing women’s issues requires a sensitivity that the Special Cells bring. Without this, sometimes the complaints related to domestic violence and harassment, which can be life-marring, can get labelled as ‘minor’ issues at police stations or could be dealt with in ways that make women distrust the systems. Special Cells have helped police to overcome such issues by taking on the responsibility for such cases. 
Archana Sahay, a counsellor who has a Masters in Psychology, and is currently working on her PhD on the issue of domestic violence manages the Special Cell at the Pataliputra Colony police station. She reports that most of the complaints that reach the Special Cell are from the lower socio-economic strata of the society – usually families of domestic workers, rag pickers, masons or drivers. Commonly, these are disputes related to division of money between a couple, made worse due to alcoholism and poverty, and ultimately the woman gets beaten up. Besides these cases of domestic violence, they also deal with dowry cases, broken ‘love’ relationships, and identity theft/misuse on social media. These complaints tend to be from women who are from socially and economically better off families. Sahay feels that the cases of violence or harassment in the well-to-do families usually are due to a mismatch in the couple’s views on and ways of lifestyle, not necessarily precipitated due to money. Such cases usually get resolved through counselling.
Madhuri Das, Gender and Social Inclusion Expert, at the Bihar Technical Assistant Support Team (BTAST), says: “Domestic violence is a chronic problem. Many people do not realise that the social and gender-related problems have a huge bearing on public health as well. VAWG has to be addressed systematically and women need to be able to voice their concerns. This is what the Special Cells have contributed to. We have selected the counsellors carefully so that they are skilled enough to reach out to women in distress. WDC also provides ongoing support to the counsellors through regular training and workshops conducted from time to time.”
There may be still a long way to go before domestic violence stops, but for now women in Bihar have a place to go to get relief. And this is a good beginning
“We are able to save homes from breaking up,” Uma Kumari, Head of Special Cell, Kotwali Thana, Patna
Uma Kumari - a law graduate - heads the Special Cell in Kotwali Thana, in the heart of Patna. The walls of her one-room office are covered with posters that urge women to stand up for themselves. Seated confidently in her post, Kumari says: “We handle all women-related matters like domestic violence, physical harassment, vulgar messages being sent to young women, harassment over phone calls, abandonment and other issues. Most of the complaints, however, are related to domestic violence. It is the psychology of the people generally in Bihar. Men want to dominate and women lack awareness and freedom. Wives get beaten by the men. Sometimes it can affect their children as well. For example, they are withdrawn from schools. When the case comes to us, we counsel the woman, we speak to the husband, the mother-in-law and sometimes to the neighbours to understand the issue. I think our intervention and counselling helps people. We are able to save homes from breaking up.”
One of the issues that Kumari has realised over the last few years is that most women who face domestic violence remain in the violent relationship for a long time before they reach out for any help. “Some women mistake us for police women as we are based in a police station. But when they meet and talk to us, they realise that we are like sisters. We listen to the women carefully. Sometimes we may decide to visit their homes and speak with their family members and even neighbours.” For such visits, Kumari usually requisitions a police vehicle and is accompanied by a police constable.
Being based in a police station means being amidst policemen, police cars and a constant flow of people. Does she feel intimidated with all this? Kumari admits that initially she was hesitant and her husband also had reservations about her taking up the job because of the location of the Women’s Cell in the police station. “But, I was really keen to work the issue of domestic violence and so I took it up. Now this is the usual routine and being inside the police station actually makes me feel safe.”
The SWASTH programme aims to improve the health and nutritional status of people of Bihar by increasing access to better quality health, nutrition, and water and sanitation services particularly for the underserved groups. The focus of this programme is to strengthen the systems through better planning, organisational strengthening & human resource management, decentralisation and convergence among key departments. The programme also uses community level processes to manage, demand and monitor services.