From Karate to Pepper Spray, Spate of Sexual Assault Cases in India Prompt Women to Fight Back

Kolkata/Bengaluru: Indian karate teacher Monimala Halder took up the sport in her teens as a way to get fit. A few months ago, she and her sister used their skills to fend off two men on a motorcycle trying to grab them as they rode past.

"I caught hold of the pillion rider just as he was reaching out for us and we beat them up," said Halder, 35, who has seen a steady rise in the number of women seeking self-defence classes in a country where women and children have long been subjected to sexual violence.

Police shot dead four men on Friday who were suspected of raping and killing a 27-year-old vet near the southern city of Hyderabad.

Some rights groups and politicians criticised the killings, saying they were concerned the judicial process had been sidestepped, but the action was applauded by the victim's family and many citizens outraged by a rising trend of violence against women.

India strengthened its laws on sexual violence after the 2012 gang rape and murder of a woman on a Delhi bus led to an outpouring of anger. Reported rapes climbed 31% from 2012 to 2017, government figures show, which officials attribute to greater public awareness rather than an increase in attacks.

But a fresh wave of horrific assaults has sparked renewed anger with women across India increasingly turning to everything from karate lessons to pepper spray to take back control.

More than 100 showed up at two separate training camps in Kolkata on Sunday to learn self-defence techniques and volunteer groups are setting up similar pop-up camps in other parts of the country.

"I have learnt how to defend myself using daily items like a handbag, or a scarf, and also how we can use our knees to protect ourselves," said Anita Roy, 32, who attended one of the Kolkata camps.

In the northern town of Faridabad, Akanksha Kathuria, who has twin six-year old daughters, said she plans on setting up self-defence classes after reading about the Hyderabad case and that of a woman in Unnao, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, who died last week after allegedly being set on fire by her rapist and other assailants.

"I shouldn't have to raise daughters with the constant fear of something bad happening to them," she said.

Pepper Spray

Self-defence experts say only a minuscule portion of India's more than 650 million women have access to such classes, and such camps are usually only accessible to those living in cities. Fewer still can commit to such programmes long-term.

"Every time there is a major incident, we see a spike in inquiries," said Ritesh Reddy, who teaches self-defence in the tech hub of Bengaluru. "But the challenge is learning self-defence requires a committed involvement."

It is not just self-defence classes that have seen a surge in popularity. Amazon's Indian arm said pepper spray sales had spiked eight times since the Hyderabad case.

The top ten best selling "safety and security" items on Amazon's India site last week were pepper sprays, as compared to its portals in the United States, Canada or Singapore, where home monitoring devices and alarm systems were the most popular.

"We've run out of inventory in the past four to five days," said Rana Singh, proprietor of Bengaluru-based Aax Global, which makes the popular Cobra branded pepper sprays.

Singh said canisters designed to fit in a woman's handbag were the company's most sought-after product.

In the state of Uttar Pradesh, where more than 4,200 rape cases - the most in the country - were reported in 2017, victims have formed an organisation, Red Brigade, aimed at empowering women.

"There is barely a school in the city of Lucknow where we've not conducted our camps," said founder Usha Vishwakarma.

Protests have continued across India since the deaths of the two victims in Hyderabad and Unnao with many people venting online about what they see as an endemic problem.

"This has to stop," said Mumbai resident Shraboni Lahiri, the mother of a four-year old girl said.

"It's not possible, or healthy, to monitor your child every moment of the day."