By: Neeta Lal

Urban Indian women, long besieged by sexual predators, are empowering themselves to teach their tormentors a lesson – including, in some cases, banding together to beat and berate them.

Realizing how Indian law enforcement agencies can no longer be trusted for their safety, they are employing a range of methods from buying small arms and pepper sprays, downloading security apps, signing up for self-defense classes, and joining self-help groups.

Although attitudes have been changing as India modernizes, the wellsprings of change stem at least partly from the gruesome rape and of a 23-year-old New Delhi student in December 2012 which caused an unprecedented national uproar. That was followed by the rape of yet another young woman by an Uber driver in 2014 again in the national capital city of New Delhi. Both episodes, among many others, continue to haunt Indian women, creating a climate of fear. Women live in perpetual dread, are scared to step out of their houses past twilight, visit pubs and bars or wear “modern”’ clothes like shorts, skirts or even jeans. How, you may well ask, is the world’s largest democracy any different from a Taliban-esque land?

Change is also creeping in, albeit slowly. And driving it are a host of men and women leading organizations and campaigns which help victims of violence to fight social stigma, urge the government to enforce stricter laws and promote gender equality. Red Brigades, a female-only collective, for instance, equips women and girls with self-defense techniques and targets males who have committed sexual assault. Blank Noise, another volunteer-led project, is working to tackle street harassment and change public attitudes towards sexual violence.

Such initiatives, say activists, are vital to protect Indian women who are increasingly stepping out of their homes to work, travel, enjoy themselves and lead a full life – which has also triggered an increase in crimes against them. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the number of reported incidents of crimes against women has more than doubled from 143,795 in 2001 to 337,992 in 2014. The number of reported rapes in the country has also risen, by 9 percent to 33,707 in 2014.

Worse, the conviction rate for rape in India was just 28 percent in 2014, which allows criminals to thrive with impunity. Unlike in the UK, where juveniles who have committed particularly serious crimes can be held for longer periods, no such provision exists in India. India passed a law in 2013 that set harsher punishment for rapes and for the first-time recognized stalking and sexual harassment as crimes. But despite this, sexual assaults remain common. A rape occurs every 22 minutes in India, according to the government’s crime records.

After his sister was raped and killed by three armed men on a highway in broad daylight, Bhikoo Shah (name changed on request) resolved to help women by launching karate classes for them. Today, the mechanical engineer is a part-time karate instructor in NOIDA, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. He charges a nominal fee from the 77 women who come to him for training.

“My classes are not just about defense techniques,” Shah said, “but also about minimizing the possibility of assault physical confrontation. Most importantly, I coach women on how to respond if physical confrontation is unavoidable.”

Not everyone is pleased about the self-defense boom.

“On one level, it may sound as if women are empowering themselves, but it is also a disturbing development,” said Pratibha Khullar, a New Delhi-based activist and a mother of two teenage daughters, “This indirectly means that the onus for women’s protection has shifted from the state to the women themselves. What kind of governance is this?”

However, experts say the women’s willingness to empower themselves and even report such crimes is driving the change. While underreporting of sexual violence is still common across India because of the stigma attached to rape, more and more women are lodging complaints to seek legal and psychological redress in such matters.

“People are far more sensitized now, the media scrutiny has also increased,” said Ranjana Kumari of the Delhi-based Center for Social Research, which has been working with women victims for over three decades. “People are willing to participate in protests and are keen that perpetrators of such crimes be brought to book. The situation is changing perceptibly.”

And women like Red Brigade founder Usha Vishwakarma are leading the change. The organization   sensitizes people, especially erring men, by talking to them.  “After talking to the man and his parents, if he still doesn’t listen, we go to the police station,” says Vishwakarma “If the man still doesn’t admit his actions were wrong, we go into the action stage.”

The “action stage” consists of groups of four or five Red Brigaders publicly beating and humiliating their tormentors. Many of the young women on the team are survivors of rape and gender-based violence themselves, including Vishwakarma. An important part of the support Red Brigade offers involves helping victims get rid of the self-guilt that the violence they faced was their fault.

Sexual harassment on Indian streets or in other public spaces is a common experience for women in India. A survey by the NGO ActionAid found 79% of women have been subjected to harassment or violence in public. It is in this context that volunteer-led projects like Blank Noise provide a valuable social service through creative initiatives.

In one of its campaigns #WalkAlone, Blank Noise asked women across the country to break their silence and walk alone to fight the fear of being harassed on the streets. In another campaign, women were urged to send in the clothing they were wearing when they were harassed, which is then used to create public installations.

By engaging not only perpetrators and victims, but also spectators and passers-by, Blank Noise, launched in 2003, relies on ‘Action Heroes’ or a network of volunteers, from across age groups, gender and sexuality to put forth its message. Effective legal mechanisms, staging theatrical public protests and publicizing offences help the organization mobilize citizens against sexual harassment in public spaces. Week-long courses are also offered to teach women how to be active in building safe spaces.

“A climate of fear surrounds Indian women’s existence leading to silence and shame. This perpetuates the cycle of sexual and gender-based violence,” says Khullar. “We need to break this cycle and change the narrative.” Looks like change is already underway.