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Women turning to self-defense in India

Rise in sex crimes prompts training in how to hit back

Members of the Red Brigade self-defense group practiced on a rooftop in Lucknow.

Rama Lakshmi/Washington Post

Members of the Red Brigade self-defense group practiced on a rooftop in Lucknow.

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 relatives accompanying them for safety.

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In the wake of a gruesome gang-rape that stunned the nation, Indian women are now equipping themselves for self-protection. Sales of pepper spray have jumped. Many women are downloading smartphone apps enabling them to seek help if they are stalked. A weapons factory is producing a ‘‘lady’s gun.’’

And the self-defense group here held a megaclass to teach hundreds of women how to target assailants’ groins.

‘‘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 said forcefully.

She is the 27-year-old 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.’’

Recently, the group trained about 700 young women, mostly students from Lucknow’s schools and colleges, on an open lot for four hours even as it drizzled, said Vishwakarma.

‘‘It was truly exhilarating to train so many women in a single session. They responded so enthusiastically to our lessons,’’ she said.

The training session was held on Valentine’s Day, to coincide with protests planned by the global ‘‘One Billion Rising’’ campaign, which fights violence against women.

The deadly rape of a 23-year-old New Delhi student in December 2012 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 films 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,’’ said Vishwakarma. ‘‘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, the police provided classes to 16,493 women in schools, colleges, and offices last year, 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; it began offering self-defense training last year, after the New Delhi gang rape. When the members started walking across 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.

The group says it has trained 3,000 women free of charge in the past year.

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.’’

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