Young women of India train, get weapons for rape 'war'

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LUCKNOW, India -- On the rooftop of a working-class apartment building, 15 young women kicked, punched and tossed each other onto a mattress one recent day, as they role-played being victims of sexual assault.

The self-defense class signaled a remarkable change in a nation where women long relied on male accompaniment for safety.

After a gruesome gang-rape stunned the nation, Indian women now are equipping themselves for self-protection. Pepper spray sales have jumped. Many women download smartphone apps enabling them to seek help if stalked. A weapons maker is offering a "lady's gun." The Lucknow self-defense group scheduled a mega-class to teach hundreds of women how to target assailants' groins -- on Valentine's Day.

"We teach women how to use their hands, where to hit the men and how to hit them, so that they are in pain for at least three months," Usha Vishwakarma, 27, said forcefully. She is the chief of the self-defense group, called the Red Brigade, in this northern city. "The attacks on our bodies are rising every day. We have to be ready for this war."

The group trained about 700 young women, mostly students from Lucknow's schools and colleges, on an open lot for four hours Friday, even as it drizzled, Ms. Vishwakarma said. "It was truly exhilarating to train so many women in a single session," she said. "They responded so enthusiastically to our lessons."

The Valentine's Day training date was chosen to coincide with protests by the global campaign "One Billion Rising," which fights violence against women.

The deadly rape in December 2012 of a 23-year-old New Delhi student caused an unprecedented national outcry. India passed a law last year that set harsher punishment for rapes and for the first time recognized stalking and sexual harassment as crimes. But sexual assaults remain common. A rape occurs every 22 minutes in India, according to the government's crime records.

Indian movies for years have featured heroes fighting villains with their bare fists to protect women from being raped. But younger women are now giving up on the idea of waiting for their knights. And with an increasing number of women studying at universities and working in offices, it is no longer practical for them to travel accompanied by a father, husband or brother.

"I tell people we don't want to wait for society to reform, for male attitudes to change, for the police to arrive and act, and for our fathers, brothers and husbands to protect us," Ms. Vishwakarma said. "Instead, we must focus our efforts on making ourselves physically and mentally strong to hit back."

While there are no data on how many women are enrolling in self-defense classes, the training is being conducted more frequently by police departments and nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. In New Delhi, police last year provided classes to 16,493 women in schools, colleges and offices, more than twice as many as in 2012.

"Now, all the NGOs working with women say this is a necessary part of the services they want to provide to the community, and they come to us to set up the training sessions," said Shivani, a police inspector who oversees the program. She goes by one name.

The Red Brigade formed three years ago as an after-school program for young women, and it began offering self-defense training last year, after the New Delhi gang rape. The group says it has trained 3,000 women free of charge in the past year.

When members started walking around the neighborhood in their red-and-black tunics and pants, pledging to protect women, men would mock them, saying, "Look, here comes the danger alarm" and "Here comes the red brigade." The name stuck.

Not everyone sees the self-defense boom as a positive sign. "On one level, it may sound as if women are empowering themselves, but it is also a disturbing development," said Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Center for Social Research. "Does the responsibility for women's protection lie with the women themselves, or with the state?" Women, she said, must continue to demand that authorities "reform their systems and responses to the problem of rising rapes."

In a sign of the new women's defense focus, the government-run Indian Ordinance Factory last month launched a .32 caliber lightweight "women's revolver."

Critics call the $2,000 gun's launch a gimmick because the overwhelming majority of Indians cannot afford it. Guns cannot be bought over the counter in India, and getting a government license to own a firearm is often a Himalayan task, with applicants having to produce proof of threats as well as savings and property information, in addition to undergoing interviews.

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