1 2 3

Call for Help

Dr. Jennifer Newberry leads a collaboration between Stanford University and its partners in India to conduct a preliminary impact analysis of Gujarat’s helpline for women, 181 Abhayam. 

In 2013, India’s Department of Telecommunications, under the Ministry of Communications, released a toll-free phone number 181 countrywide, mandating each state government to develop an infrastructure for this number to help women experiencing gender-based violence. For the past two years, Dr. Jennifer Newberry, an Emergency Medicine instructor at Stanford University in California and fellow at the Center for Innovation in Global Health, has been traveling to Gujarat to review the call center data for the state’s toll-free helpline for women, 181 Abhayam. The helpline was launched across Gujarat in February 2014. It provides 24x7 free counseling, guidance, information and also rescue in various threatening situations, including domestic violence. The GVK Emergency Management and Research Institute, one of the largest professional emergency service providers in India, is responsible for the implementation and operation of 181 Abhayam.

Dr. Newberry is leading a collaboration among Stanford’s departments of Emergency Medicine and Pediatrics with partners in India to conduct a preliminary impact analysis of 181 Abhayam. The team will work on understanding the impact of the helpline model and build the evidence base for women’s crisis support and response in India. The team recently received seed funding from the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health.

Excerpts from an interview.


Please tell us about the research team working on the preliminary impact analysis of 181 Abhayam.

I am leading the research team at Stanford, with support of co-principal investigators, Dr. Matthew Strehlow, director of Stanford Emergency Medicine International and Dr. Gary L. Darmstadt, associate dean for Maternal and Child Health at Stanford University School of Medicine. Our team consists of three undergraduate research assistants, Shravya Gurrapu, Japsimran Kaur and Rushali Patel; one of our Global Emergency Medicine fellows, Dr. Sybil Zachariah; and a postdoctoral fellow who is volunteering her time, Karishma Desai. We did not recruit our team, but rather each of these women of Indian heritage heard about our project and approached us wanting to help. Each person is committed out of a deep personal passion to confront gender-based violence in India.

Our team also includes our partners at GVK Emergency Management and Research Institute, who oversee the 181 Abhayam program in Gujarat. For the study this summer, we are recruiting six additional local research assistants who are fluent in English and Gujarati, and have prior qualitative research experience.


How will your team approach the upcoming impact analysis?

This summer, I will live in Gujarat for two months to conduct our impact analysis, which includes interviewing both women who have and who have not called on 181. We hope that these in-depth individual interviews will help us better understand how 181 Abhayam impacts women’s lives, whether it is through rescue, connection to legal aid, mental health counseling, empowerment, or simply the assurance that when they call in a time of crisis, someone will pick up the phone. We also hope to identify any barriers women face when trying to use 181 Abhayam, any particular groups that require further outreach, such as adolescent women, and opportunities to strengthen 181 Abhayam services.


Have more states launched the 181 helpline after its success in Gujarat?

After Gujarat’s 181 Abhayam’s success, other states have started helplines based on its model. Chhattisgarh has a comprehensive 181 helpline covering the entire state; Uttar Pradesh has started 181 services in at least 11 districts and will continue to roll it out in other districts too; and Andhra Pradesh and Assam are in advanced planning stages.


What do you think is the most effective tool for encouraging women to call the helpline?

There are outreach counselors in every district in Gujarat. These women are trained 181 Abhayam staff, similar to the women working as counselors at the call center. Outreach counselors stay in the field and have the primary responsibility of staffing the 181 rescue vans. Each van is staffed by an outreach counselor and a female police constable. Together, the counselor and the police constable go to the scene of a call, with a woman’s consent or, specifically, at her request, and provide mediation, counseling, connection to resources and rescue, if necessary.

The outreach counselors and the rescue van, also known as the Women’s Helpline (WHL) van, have been critical in getting women to call. First, the vans are a symbol of the unique service they provide and the responsiveness of 181 Abhayam. Second, when outreach counselors are not answering calls, they are reaching out to key stakeholders in the community about 181 Abhayam and conducting awareness campaigns. Awareness campaigns teach women about their rights and local governmental and nongovernmental resources, and seek to empower women in their daily lives. This type of deep engagement within the community creates visibility and trust.


What are your takeaways from your research in Gujarat?

There is so much we do not understand about how, why and when women seek help after violence. In India, less than one percent of women who experience violence will ever seek help outside of family and friends. Our research, both our retrospective review and prospective study this summer, are far from complete. But, I see two themes already emerging: empowerment and trust. Women must feel empowered to make the call. Empowerment in this sense includes not only a sense of autonomy and power over their own life, but also an understanding they have rights that have been violated. Once empowered, women must trust that institutions will, in fact, listen to them and provide the help they need.


Kimberly Gyatso is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, California.