One Stop, Many Challenges: Sakhi Centres Struggle To Support Women Survivors of Violence
While there are 733 One Stop Centres operational in the country, the scheme faces several challenges in providing effective assistance and support to women who are survivors of violence
Mumbai: “The women of the One Stop Centre gave me my life back,” says Pallavi Sharma, a survivor of domestic violence. During her five-year marriage, her husband and in-laws verbally and physically abused her; when she resisted her husband filed for divorce. In 2020, she approached the police to complain of harassment by her landlord in Pune, where she lived alone after her divorce. The police advised her to get admitted in a shelter for mentally ill people, telling her that she would be cared for there. “But the authorities would beat us up and physically abuse us. They took our phones." She ran away from the institution with two other women and found her way to a One Stop Centre (OSC) in Mumbai’s Jogeshwari in 2022.
At the OSC, Sharma says she was counselled, accompanied to a hospital to establish her mental fitness (and that she did not need to be institutionalised), and provided shelter at the OSC for some days. "I was severely depressed and unable to get over the trauma and support myself," she says. The OSC staff supported her to restart her work as a yoga instructor by teaching yoga at the centre, and then taking on other clients when she had regained her confidence.
“Today, I am independent and I’m working as a yoga instructor. I am very grateful to them. If it weren’t for their help, I would still be admitted in an institution, and dealing with trauma and abuse…They helped me realise that my life was not over.”
The Sakhi One Stop Centre scheme of the WCD ministry under the Nirbhaya Fund, aims to support and assist women facing violence in public and private spaces, including spousal violence. However, despite having the potential to help hundreds of thousands of women, and being operational for over seven years, several issues prevent the centres and the larger scheme from effectively curbing domestic violence or providing adequate support to survivors, our analysis finds.
Less than half of the funds released by the Union Government for the Sakhi One Stop Centre scheme were utilised between 2015 and 2022. A failure to integrate other systems like the Women’s Helpline impacts the value and effectiveness of this service, while a lack of awareness among stakeholders like the police reduces the reach of this service.
During 2019-21, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-V) reported that three in 10 married women (18 to 49 years) in India faced spousal violence. Only 507 cases were registered under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (2005) across India in 2021, and 136,000 cases were registered under IPC Section 498A (Cruelty by Husband or his Relatives). NFHS data show that 87% of married women who are victims of spousal violence did not seek help.
What are Sakhi One Stop Centres
Sakhi One Stop Centres, started in 2015, are a key project funded by the Nirbhaya Fund--started on the recommendation of Usha Mehra Commission after the gangrape of a student in Delhi in December 2012--to finance schemes and projects that protect and empower women. In 2022, the scheme was integrated as a part of the Sambal Scheme focused on safety and security of women, under Mission Shakti, which is an umbrella scheme for the safety, security and empowerment of women.
Every district in the country should have an operational OSC to provide integrated support and assistance to women affected by violence, and facilitate immediate, emergency and non-emergency access to a range of services including medical, legal, temporary shelter, police assistance and psychological counselling support. Presently 733 OSCs are operational in 729 districts of the country, according to the data provided in Lok Sabha on February 10, 2023.
About 60-70% cases registered in OSCs are of domestic violence, according to Nayreen Daruwalla, programme director at SNEHA, a Mumbai-based NGO which runs the OSC in Mumbai city, located in Parel’s KEM hospital.
OSCs are useful because they can provide several kinds of assistance needed in the case of spousal violence, experts say. “Medico-legal cases can be complicated to handle, which is why having a resourceful team of people to assist with these processes is needed,” says Daruwalla. She gives the example of a case in 2020 of a pregnant mother of two children, one of them sick. The hospital staff referred the woman to the OSC as she was a victim of domestic violence and had left her house. The OSC could help her with shelter, medical assistance, legal assistance for the children’s custody, as well as assistance with the funeral services when her sick child passed away.
Who runs Sakhi One Stop Centres?
While the scheme is funded by the Union government, it is implemented by state governments. Each state follows a different process when it comes to the set up and operations of OSCs. In Maharashtra, the WCD ministry runs centres in 20 districts and for 16 districts, the government has selected implementation agencies to run the centre.
“The government does not have enough bandwidth to carry out daily operations of these centres. So they select NGOs which have prior experience working in this sector,” Daruwalla says. The WCD says it selects organisations which have adequate experience implementing women-and-child-related projects and have facilities, resources and personnel to implement the project.
In other states, like Uttar Pradesh, all the OSCs are run directly by the state’s Department of Women and Child Development. “In Uttar Pradesh, depending on who is managing the centre, the performance and facilities are varied,” says Renu Mishra, a Lucknow-based lawyer who provides free legal aid and support for women, children and other marginalised communities. Mishra has carried out training sessions in different OSCs in UP.
“In Lucknow the centre is run efficiently, but we found that other centres face issues like power blackouts, lack of accessible toilets and other infrastructure problems.” Mishra recently carried out a study with UN Women on the condition of One Stop Centres and the report on their findings is scheduled to be published shortly.
IndiaSpend has reached out to Uttar Pradesh's Department of Women and Child Development, regarding the conditions of One Stop Centres. We will update the story when we receive a response.
Under utilisation of released funds
The One Stop Centre Scheme is funded 100% through the Nirbhaya Fund by the Union government. In 2015-16, funds were disbursed to state governments but in 2016-17, guidelines of the Ministry of Finance changed. Dedicated bank accounts were created at the district level for the OSC Scheme. States/UTs submit a budget, including the recurring and non-recurring expenses to set up and run the OSC, to the Programme Approval Board. Once approved, the funds are released to the dedicated bank account managed by the District Collector or Magistrate in two instalments in the calendar year. The second instalment is subject to receiving the detailed Statement of Expenditure (SoE) and Utilisation Certificate (UC) of the grant from the agency running the OSC.
While over Rs 735 crore of the Rs 868 crore approved funds have already been released to the districts, only Rs 328 crore has been utilised on the ground. Over half of the funds which have been released, and are accounted for in the Union budget as the actual expenditure, still remain in bank accounts of district collectors or magistrates.
Data collated by the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA) show that Bihar and Karnataka utilised the least funds for OSCs as of 2022. The two states also have the highest rate of spousal violence according to NFHS-5.
The data of funds released and utilised shows a pattern of under-utilisation across states. Despite availability of balance funds from the grants released previously, the Union government continued to release additional funds to OSCs.
For example, the Utilisation Certificate for Washim, Maharashtra shows that the OSC received six grants amounting to over Rs 66 lakh, between 2019 and 2021. The grants received in 2019-20 remained unutilised, yet more money was released in 2020-21.
IndiaSpend has reached out to the Ministry of Women & Child Development and the Home Ministry for their comments regarding the low utilisation of funds released for OSCs. We have also asked the Department of Women and Child Development of the states of Bihar, Karnataka, Punjab, Maharashtra, Kerala, UP regarding low utilisation of funds.
“An increase in allocations must be accompanied with the capacity to absorb these funds. This has not been happening, and utilisations have, therefore, been low,” says research associate Tanya Rana from the Accountability Initiative, a Delhi-based research organisation. For example, she explained, in the case of Amritsar, Punjab, an OSC was not constructed till 2019-20, but the scheme received allocations in 2017-18 and 2018-19. “Without an operational OSC, therefore, the allocated money in the previous years could not be absorbed.”
Low salaries for staff, delays in disbursement
The OSC guidelines ask that 13 staff members be employed in each centre: one central administrator, two case workers, one paralegal, one paramedical, one psycho-social counsellor, one office assistant with knowledge of information technology, three multi-purpose staff and three security guards.
Sumita Bhadrige, who works as the central administrator in the OSC in suburban Mumbai, explains the protocol followed by the team when a woman approaches the OSC to seek help: “I first put them in touch with one of the case workers, who understands her needs. After getting all the information, the paralegal speaks to her. It is important to inform her about her rights so that she can evaluate her options. We then have a joint meeting with the administrator and the counsellor to determine the next steps.”
Urja Trust, an NGO based out of Mumbai, has been managing the OSC in Jogeshwari, a Mumbai suburb, since July 2020. The total salary for the staff of 13 is Rs 2 lakh per month (revised to Rs 2.35 lakh per month in the new Mission Shakti guidelines for 2023). Daruwalla tells us that the salary for case workers is Rs 15,000 per month. Both Urja and SNEHA pay a salary in addition to that paid by the government.
A counsellor’s role is critical, says Daruwalla, as they “have to navigate through the insecurities and fears of the victim, understand her situation and make interventions tailored to her”. But the payscale is particularly low for a counsellor, making it hard to hire qualified people, says Shweta Pokle, the counsellor at Mumbai’s suburban OSC. “Not every OSC has a counsellor, they might have a social worker who has studied psychology [as part of Masters in Social Work course]. This can be damaging, since they might engage in giving advice, instead of understanding the victim’s situation.”
Some One Stop Centres also face delays in receiving funds from the Centre, which delays disbursement of staffs’ salaries. Neeti Singh has been working as the counsellor in Raipur OSC, the first OSC in the country, since it became operational in 2016. She tells us that the staff’s salary has not been increased since 2017. There have been delays in disbursing staff salaries on several occasions, including between October 2022 and March 2023, in 2017, and for five-six months in 2018-19. Singh says the state’s department of women and child development “tells us that they have not received the funds from Delhi”.
IndiaSpend has reached out to the Ministry of Women & Child Development and the Home Ministry for their comments regarding the low payscale for counsellors, and will update the story when they respond. We have also asked Commissioner-cum-director of the Women and Child Development Department in Chhattisgarh regarding the delays in salaries in the Raipur OSC.
Challenges working with bureaucracy, legal aid
The NGOs that run OSCs encounter additional challenges due to bureaucracy. “It has been three years, there is no policy in place for the staff’s well being, not even basic HR [human resources] and leave-related policies. The SOP [Standard Operating Procedure] prepared by the ministry lists guidelines, and roles and responsibilities, but does not include details regarding the staff’s well being, or description of the daily operations,” says Ankita Kohirkar, who is a programme coordinator for Urja.
“Working with the government has been a learning experience for us. After much back and forth, we have come up with a leave policy for the staff [which the government will include in its policy]. We are continuing to push [the government] for more positions and better pay,” Kohirkar said.
Vasanti Mule, who works with the Halo Medical Foundation based out of Osmanabad in Maharashtra, managed the OSC in the district from 2019 to 2022. “Our mission was to make our OSC a model centre in the state of Maharashtra, when we started out,” she says. “But after the contractually obligated period of three years, we decided not to renew [the contract]. Working with survivors of domestic violence is a very challenging task and we did not find the support and cooperation needed to undertake this from the department [of women and child development].” “NGOs are better equipped to work with the community and push for social change, they should be given more power and flexibility when it comes to running OSCs,” she says.
Coordinating with the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA) for legal aid has also been challenging in some cases. Mishra, the lawyer, says that there have been instances of Paralegal Volunteers (PLVs) from the DLSA asking for legal fees from women who approach them through OSCs, even though their legal help should be free. This further discourages survivors of domestic violence, who are often already pressured by family and other institutes to compromise with the abuser, from considering legal action.
Singh, who is the counsellor at Raipur’s OSC, says that legal aid has not been consistently available in the past few months at the OSC.
We asked the Raipur DLSA and the SLSA of Uttar Pradesh regarding consistent and accessible availability of legal aid for OSCs, and will update the story when we receive a response.
Lack of awareness and publicity
Most OSCs are located in hospitals, since healthcare workers are the first point of contact for women affected by violence. But due to the lack of promotion of these centres, there is very little awareness about the centres. Even among stakeholders, like police and social workers, there is limited knowledge about an OSC and its functions, OSC staff told IndiaSpend. OSCs are required to carry out outreach programmes with Anganwadi workers, visit police stations to inform them of services provided by OSCs on a local level.
For instance, the OSC in Jogeshwari is located on the 10th floor of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC)-run Hindu Hruday Samrat Balasaheb Thackeray Trauma Care Hospital. There are no boards or signs outside the hospital which indicate that there is an OSC inside, nor are there any directions within the building. Unless someone is aware of the OSC’s address or has been referred to the centre, it is difficult to locate it. At present, women are referred to the OSC by hospital staff and in some cases by the police, the staff told IndiaSpend.
Mishra, the lawyer, tells us that when she visited OSCs in Uttar Pradesh, she found that the hospital staff was not following the protocol to refer survivors of domestic violence and other forms of sexual violence to the OSC within the hospital premises. The National Health Mission 2021 report also observed that there is a lack of training among healthcare providers on examination, consent, treatment, counselling and police intimation in cases of sexual violence.
Schemes run in isolation
OSCs were established to bridge the gap between the women who face domestic violence (nearly a third of married women), and those who seek help (13% of those who face domestic violence), according to Rajendra Kachroo of Aman Trust, a New Delhi-based non-profit organisation.
“The OSC is not supposed to operate in isolation; it was intended to be a scheme that combines helplines and legal aid services, but it was segregated for funding reasons," says Kachroo, whose organisation set up and managed 68 multiple OSCs in Chhattisgarh, Jammu and Kashmir, Meghalaya and Assam. He has also worked with the ministry of WCD to build a Management Information System (MIS) to integrate the Women’s Helpline, OSCs and the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) Helpline, which provides free legal aid for the economically disadvantaged.
He explains that OSCs were not supposed to just refer women to other departments, but be a “representational system” which “brings representatives from all the institutes available in one place”. He explains, “the intent of OSCs was to allow collaboration between different stakeholders to facilitate quick and easy access to justice”, but “OSC has failed to act as the access to the justice scheme that it was originally envisioned to be”. NITI Aayog’s report from July 2021 also found a lack of convergence between Centrally Sponsored Schemes within WCD like OSC, Women’s Helpline and Swadhar Greh providing shelter homes for women.
IndiaSpend reported previously that there is no coordination between schemes like Muktha Centre, which comes under the Health Department, and One Stop Centres in Karnataka.
“Within 5-7 days of receiving a complaint, a court order for counselling, residence, protection, custody of children or any other requirement should be issued. Further, the process of registering a Domestic Incident Report should be initiated, based on the victim’s decision to take legal action. This requires active collaboration and sharing of information between the Women’s Helpline, OSC, District Legal Services Authority (DLSA) lawyer,” says Kachroo.
It is to facilitate this level of collaboration that the MIS was introduced, but in response to a right to information request by activist Urvashi Sharma, UP’s department of WCD said that the web-based MIS system is no longer in use in the state. Kachroo says that local agencies and state departments have stopped using the MIS system that was set up by the organisation. The integrated portal built by Aman Trust, which included the OSCs of Assam, Chhattisgarh, Jammu and Kashmir and Meghalaya, is no longer functional.
We have asked the Ministry of Women & Child Development and the Home Ministry on the lack of an integrated MIS system and if they plan to have a such a system in place.
In 2021, the Assam government released a Request For Proposal inviting NGOs to apply for managing the One Stop Centres in the state, once the contract with Aman Trust expired in September 2021. This notice included the condition that only locally-registered NGOs could participate. The Aman Trust has contested this in the court. According to Kachroo, since the OSCs have been handed over to the state, there has been a deterioration in the quality of service.
We have asked Assam's Department of Women and Child Development regarding their decision to have only locally-registered NGOs manage OSCs, and will update the story when they respond.
The justice system is painfully slow for women survivors
Pokle from Mumbai’s suburban OSC tells us that one of the biggest challenges in the pursuit of justice for survivors of spousal violence is the long drawn nature of the process. Despite approaching via an OSC, the legal route takes years and involves many steps.
Data from NALSA show that over 400,000 cases under the Domestic Violence Act were pending as of July 2022. An analysis of Domestic Incident Reports (DIRs) based on the data from OSCs in Telangana found that in 15 of 49 cases analysed, it took about one year to one and a half years from the filing of the DIR to receipt of either an interim or final court order. In the meantime, in many cases, survivors are discouraged from taking action by family and other institutions and they are persuaded to compromise, especially in the case of financially dependent women who have children.
OSC staff from Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh that IndiaSpend spoke to, shared a similar experience of survivors of domestic violence being reluctant to take legal action even in cases where it is warranted and there is imminent physical danger if they continue to live with the abuser. Data from OSCs in Chhattisgarh shared by Kachroo of Aman Trust showed that DIRs were drafted in only 6% of domestic violence cases between April 2020 and January 2023.
“Without a court order, the OSC staff don’t have the authority to call the husband/abuser and counsel the perpetrator, so they end up carrying out secondary victimisation by suggesting mediation or by blaming the victim,” says Kachroo. “Institutes [like the police] are inherently prejudiced against women and [in some cases] OSCs continue to respond in a similar manner.” “Police apathy against women” was one of the top 10 complaints registered with the National Commission for Women.
“Filing DIR is not the responsibility of the OSC; it is the state-appointed Protection Officer (PO) who carries this out. In UP, the filing of DIR by the PO takes a long time, and until then no interim order was being passed by the magistrate,” says Mishra, the lawyer. “But in July 2022, our legal team filed a case in the Allahabad High Court and the judge ruled that an interim order can be passed by the Magistrate, within three days of application, even without a DIR. This would help survivors of domestic violence avail facilities like counselling, residence, protection and assist with custody of children,” she added.
Shelter is a challenge
Besides providing legal and medical support, OSCs help women with short-term or long-term shelter as needed. “While the process of OSC recommending a shelter home and transitioning should be straightforward in theory, in most cases it is not. There are no Swadhar Grehs in Mumbai,” says Kohirkar. Swadhar Grehs are shelter homes run by the WCD ministry which provide rehabilitation and institutional support to women in need of it, including survivors of domestic violence.
Another challenge is long term shelters for women who need specialised care, such as the elderly and disabled women.
“Most shelter homes restrict the mobility and agency of women. There are stringent rules regarding what they are allowed to do outside the premises. They are considered the responsibility of the OSC. So if women don’t behave in compliance with the rules, they are asked to return to the OSC,” says Kohirkar. “The state looks at women through a patriarchal lens of protection. Their autonomy is not taken into consideration. We need programmes in place to improve the sensitivity of our institutes like shelter homes.”
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