Last year, a 22-year-old college student in Hyderabad, India, approached one of his female classmates and asked if she’d be his friend. She agreed, but then he pushed a bit further and asked her to be his girlfriend, to which she gave him a firm “no.” Upset with her refusal, the student began a campaign of harassment. Over the next few weeks, he called and sent her abusive text messages, threatening to spread false information about her.
Following the harassment, the police in Hyderabad had not only apprehended the young man — a rarity when it comes to such cases in India — but sent him to a counselor for a dressing down. On a humid day in March, in a nondescript building in Hyderabad’s IT hub, Miryala Lavanya, a clinical psychologist hired by the state’s police force, adjusted her sari and wiped the sweat off her brow, as a ceiling fan slowly rotated above her.
“You don’t think women have to be respected?” she sternly asked the man, who was visibly uncomfortable, speechless, and unable to make eye contact. “Don’t you have a mother and sister?”
For years, the police in Hyderabad, a bustling city and home to India’s second largest technology hub, were frustrated by the scale of harassment facing women and their unwillingness to come forward with complaints. Police stations in India are notoriously hostile spaces for women, and despite multiple dedicated phone lines and a proprietary police app called Hawk Eye, few women were willing to report harassment — until Telangana police created a dedicated hotline on WhatsApp.
The man getting the old talking to that day is one of roughly 30,000 who had been apprehended through the Telangana State Police’s anti-harassment system since 2014. Rather than introduce yet another smartphone safety app for women in their state — there are over 50 and counting on India’s Google Play store — the department turned to India’s most popular phone application.
India, by many measures, is the most unsafe country for women in the world. While gruesome cases of sexual, physical, verbal, and psychological violence against women are regularly reported in the news, the majority of cases nevertheless go unreported. Over 80% of women have faced harassment in public spaces, eight out of 10 say they’ve been harassed over the phone or text, and by one estimate, nearly 99% of all sexual assault cases go unreported.
In 2012, the Delhi gang rape incident, as it has come to be known, sparked global outrage and brought international attention to India’s abysmal record with violence against women. A slew of “women’s safety” apps were launched in the wake of the event: some are meant to be used as SOS signals, others have tracking features for family and friends.
At first glance, apps seem like a reasonable solution: there are over 760 million smartphone users in India, and, with data being both ubiquitous and affordable, urban life in India almost entails owning a cell phone. But the efficacy of these apps is difficult to parse. Between regional language barriers, complicated registration processes, and technical difficulties, the apps remain niche. Although dozens are available in India today, none have been widely adopted.
“WhatsApp has emerged as the most-used platform for women to seek help or make complaints of harassment,” explained Swati Lakra, one of the top officers in the Telangana State Police. Petite and matter-of-fact, she is the antithesis of the swaggering male police officer you might see stereotyped in a Bollywood film.
As the director of the Women’s Safety Wing in the state, Lakra has made it her personal mission to curb the daily harassment facing women in her jurisdiction. Lakra says she gets an average of 2,700 complaints a month about harassment against women, and close to 1,100 of those come through the WhatsApp helpline. “We have a zero-tolerance policy for such crimes,” she said, peering through thin wire-frame glasses.
Since October 2014, Lakra and her colleagues have been using WhatsApp helplines to register “non-heinous” complaints against women, which includes instances of public harassment and lewd comments made on social media. This category of crimes also encompasses “Eve teasing,” a South Asian euphemism for stalking, teasing, or touching women inappropriately.
The way the helpline works is simple. Once a complainant texts the number, they receive an automated response from the police asking if they wish to file a complaint. If they respond “yes,” the helpline automatically requests information about the incident. It is then assigned a case number and, depending on location, passed onto one of the 100 units in the Telangana police force known as SHE Teams, units that focus on crimes against women. At that point, a five-member SHE Team (two of whom are required to be women) swing into action, contacting the woman who filed the complaint, collecting evidence, and, crucially, inquiring whether she wants to press charges.
One woman who has made use of the service, a 35-year-old beautician in a small town outside of Hyderabad, messaged the hotline after one of her male clients began sending her lewd texts. Soon after, he escalated to calling her and threatening to reveal her personal information. “For months, he threatened to defame me on social media,” said the woman, who asked to speak anonymously, out of concern for her safety. Worried that her husband and in-laws would make her stop working if they knew what was going on, she kept the harassment secret. This took a psychological toll, and eventually she was unable to sleep or eat. If she stopped working, “my life would be over,” she explained to Rest of World.
A friend told her about the WhatsApp hotline and convinced the woman to reach out. She was apprehensive, but she did, receiving an automated response in English as well as her native Telugu. Within two hours of reporting the harassment that had been taking place for weeks, her tormentor was in police custody.
“I think they threatened him,” she said. Although she met with the police officers only once, she speaks about them with glowing admiration: “He hasn’t called me since!”
WhatsApp messages account for over 40% of the reports received by Telangana’s SHE Teams. Other complaints filter into the station over the phone, through women visiting the offices in person, or online, through Facebook, Twitter, and email. By comparison, just 4% of complaints come through the police’s Hawk Eye app.
But reporting harassment against women is only half the battle. “At the outset, our focus was punishment,” explained Lakra. According to the SHE Team’s records, less than 10% of harassment victims choose to press charges. “But we soon realized, these men will continue to do this, and we will only be successful if they don’t repeat these acts,” she said. The beautician, for instance, felt that pressing charges would make the problem worse. “If I pressed charges or told my family, they may stop me from working, and it would be shameful for me,” she said.
In cases like hers, the SHE teams turn to group and individual counseling sessions with alleged harassers, like the one the college student attended last month. The other men in his group that day were teenagers, IT employees, construction workers, and other college students — a diverse cross-section of Hyderabad society. They shuffled behind a row of desks in a large lecture hall, looking like petulant schoolchildren. Some had put effort into dressing presentably for the occasion, but that hardly made a difference to Lavanya, who was considering how to appropriately punish the young man sweating before her.
“What do we do with him? Case or another counseling session?” she loudly asked another officer.
“Maybe a petty case?” the officer suggested.
A petty case would mean a criminal record for the young man, which would affect his chances of employment. Lavanya sensed his fear.
“Rectify this behavior. Learn how to respect women. You are not a hero in a Telugu film. In the real world, no means no,” she said authoritatively. “I am giving you one last chance. Come next week for counseling again.”
Later, Lavanya confided, “These boys don’t learn if you talk to them sweetly.”