Delhi women take safety into their own hands

Women in India's capital are taking self-defence classes, snapping up pepper sprays, booking cabs with female drivers or leaving work early following the gang rape and murder of a student last month.

NEW DELHI // Women in India's capital are taking self-defence classes, snapping up pepper sprays, booking cabs with female drivers or leaving work early, all signs of growing insecurity after the gang rape and murder of a student last month.

The assault on the 23-year-old - who was raped by six men and tortured with an iron bar on a bus, then left bleeding on a motorway - stunned the nation and generated an unprecedented wave of protests calling for better security for women.

Five men and a juvenile are on trial for rape and murder.

In response to the public outrage, authorities have initiated several measures to instil confidence, but many women said they could not rely on India's often gender-insensitive and under-resourced police force to ensure their security.

"It's no secret that Delhi is unsafe for women. A lot of us have known it for a long time, but this case has brought things to light," said Sunanda Jalote, 18, a psychology student attending her first self-defence class with Invictus Survival Sciences in South Delhi.

"It really has hit the confidence of women in the city. We don't want to feel like that. We want to be able to go out wherever we want, at any time of day or night, and feel safe. So you have to learn how to defend yourself."

Delhi, with a burgeoning population of 16 million, has the unsavoury reputation of being the country's "rape capital", recording more rapes annually than any other Indian city.

There were 706 rapes reported last year, a 23 per cent rise from the previous year, according to the Delhi police, while reported molestation cases rose by 11 per cent to 727. Experts said the real number of rapes was much higher, owing to women's reluctance to report the crimes to the police.

Private companies running self-defence classes in the capital said they have had a flurry of requests since the December 16 attack.

"Since the incident happened, the number of inquiries and enrolments has shot up considerably ... by about 40 per cent," said Ankur Sharma, senior instructor at Invictus, adding that most were from female students or professional women between the ages of 18 and 35.

A survey conducted by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India earlier this month found that 80 per cent of women working in Delhi's business process outsourcing (BPO)and IT sectors were leaving work earlier than usual, affecting work productivity.

The poll, which questioned 2,500 women in the capital and its surrounds, found most women feared taking public transport such as buses, autorickshaws or the subway after sunset. This is reinforced by the surge in bookings by the taxi operator Sakha Cab Services, a women-only taxi service with female drivers, which said the number of cab bookings had increased by 35 per cent over the past month.

For those who cannot afford private taxis or self-defence classes, pepper spray has been the answer.

Grocery stores, chemists and even cosmetic shops in Delhi's centrally located Connaught Place said the brightly coloured spray cans had been flying off shelves since the gang rape, selling up to five times more than usual.

Authorities in Delhi have announced a raft of measures to help women feel safer on the city's streets. These include a 24-hour helpline for women in distress, instructions to all BPOs to ensure female employees return home from work safely, more policing on the streets and a crackdown on drunk driving.

But women such as Ms Jalote are unconvinced.

"Women have to learn to defend themselves," she said, in between learning how to kick her partner in the crotch at a self-defence class. "We don't want to have to wear a burqa to go out and feel safe."