Lucknow-based Red Brigade prepares women to defend themselves in case of assault both outside and within the home

The gangrape of a 13-year old girl and her 35-year-old mother in the northern Indian city of Bulandshahr in August has brought the focus back on the issue of increasing crimes against women in the country. More recently, a perfumer was found murdered in her apartment in Goa. A former security guard of the building was arrested in the case — he allegedly raped her because he was “nursing a grudge” against her.

Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) says the number of reported incidents of crimes against women more than doubled from 143,795 in 2001 to 337,992 in 2014. Nearly a third of these cases fall in the category of “cruelty by husband or his relatives”, which means that women are not safe even in their own homes.

The rape of a young woman in a moving bus in New Delhi in December 2012 and the rape of another young woman by an Uber driver two years later — again in New Delhi — continue to haunt Indian women. Incidents such as these have resulted in fear psychosis among them. Women in both urban and rural areas live in perpetual fear and dread.

Many women are now realising that they can no longer depend on law enforcement agencies for their safety and are doing whatever they can to feel safe.

“For days after the 2012 rape case, I was scared to get into an elevator, especially if someone was already in it. There have been instances when I have climbed five floors instead of taking the elevator. My husband thinks I am crazy but every time I taken an Ola or an Uber [cab], I message him the driver’s name and phone number,” says Sakshi Bedi, a 25-year-old resident of South Delhi. She works in Gurgaon and regularly takes a cab to her workplace.

“Increasing crimes against women are leading to panic and dread among women and their families. It is very difficult for women to trust anyone in this atmosphere ... they are extremely cautious and scared now. All of this is affecting the decisions or choices they make. For instance, I recall the case of a woman client who didn’t take up a new job in another office located slightly away from her existing workplace, only because of security considerations,” says Pulkit Sharma, a clinical psychologist in New Delhi.

“One cannot be blind to reality. Extra-cautious behaviour is to be expected in such circumstances. However, problem arises when one starts to overplay or exaggerate the threat in one’s mind and extreme anxiety sometimes leads to this kind of behaviour,” Sharma adds.

Shweta Verma, a 36-year-old human resource executive at a multinational firm recalls an instance that gave her a huge fright. “I was at a red light while driving home from the office. Suddenly there was a knock on my window. Though the car was locked, I froze. It was at least two-three minutes before I could react. The person just wanted to ask directions to a nearby eating joint. This [kind of fear] has made it difficult for me to enjoy life. I am scared of practically everything now,” she says.

This anxiety is further compounded by the fact that urban working women are supposed to be independent. “She has to camouflage her fear and apprehension most of the time and condition herself to feel safe and secure in the company of known people. Women feel that the world is not in their favour. They feel that if they trust [someone], they will be hurt and that things are no longer in their control. They carry these assumptions for the rest of their lives, which determines the way they think about themselves, their relationships and the way they think about life,” says Dr Jitendra Nagpal, a well-known psychiatrist in New Delhi.

It is this fear and living in constant anxiety that have forced women to learn how to defend themselves when they need to. And there’s a corresponding spurt in self-defence classes for women, with private players as well as law enforcement agencies such as the Delhi Police conducting these sessions.

Lucknow-based Red Brigade is one such group. Set up by Usha Vishwakarma in 2011, the Red Brigade trains women in self-defence and raises awareness about sexual crime. “We have trained nearly 28,000 girls across the country. The girls are generally in the age group of 15 to 35 years old,” says Vishwakarma. She claims that it is a one-of-its-kind training group in the country since it tackles both physical as well as psychological aspects of fighting an attacker.

A key reason why Indian women are increasingly banking on self-defence training is that they encounter difficult situations not just outside but also at home. In nearly 86 per cent of the rape cases in 2014, the victim knew the culprit. This percentage was higher than 90 in 16 of the 36 states/union territories.

“It is not just to fight rape but life, both outside and at home, is tough for girls in India. Many times it is family members and close relatives who make inappropriate advances. A woman has to be strong to fight such overtures, otherwise she will end up living in perpetual fear,” says Vishwakarma, who herself is a survivor of attempted rape.

She recalls the incident of a young girl who was being harassed by her cousin staying with her family. After the workshop, she called him outside and bashed him without the knowledge of other family members. “Her cousin never created trouble after this,” says Vishwakarma.

“I made my daughter join self-defence classes because I was concerned and anxious about her safety. I also bought pepper spray for her. My main concern is that, unlike in the past, nowadays you cannot rely on bystanders to help you. You have to be as prepared as possible. I can’t stop her from going out but the least I can do is to prepare her as much as possible to deal with the outside world or an attack,” says Neha Sanghi, 46. Her 22-year-old daughter Shweta is a college student.

The main aim of these classes is to increase the confidence of women, to mentally and psychologically make them believe that they can protect themselves and that they have the strength to ward off assault.

Apart from enrolling in self-defence classes, more women are buying pepper spray. “We have been selling pepper spray for the last five years, but the demand has really gone up in the last two years. This is mainly because of an increased awareness and the rising rate of crimes against women. There is a steady demand, but whenever an incident that draws a strong public opinion occurs, our sales instantly double,” says Mathen Mathew, director at Indus Cartel. The company used to source pepper spray from abroad earlier, but now it manufacturers the product in India. Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai, New Delhi and Pune are some of the cities that have recorded a high demand for this product.

Experts believe that the best way to deal with fear psychosis is to not let your fear prevent you from living your life. One has to consciously be aware of the fear but try to keep a normal routine as far as possible. Of course, that doesn’t mean that one should ignore signs of danger.

“There is nothing wrong in being scared, but it should not push you to making changes that you don’t want and are not comfortable with. After the 2012 rape case, I was scared for a very long time and didn’t go out for a movie or any major event for about three or four months. But then I felt I did not want to live like this. I made an effort to overcome my fear. Now, I am generally not scared, but the fear returns whenever there is a prominent incident that grabs national headlines,” says Sushma Bhatnagar, a 30-year-old public relations executive in New Delhi.

If fear is overwhelming your life, then experts advise sharing your problem with close friends and family, who will be able to support, guide and help you overcome extreme anxiety. If that doesn’t work, going for counselling sessions or therapy is helpful.

Though the government has undertaken steps to check crimes against women, developing skills and capabilities that not only boost confidence but also empower women are an effective tool against a potential attack or the fear of it.

Gagandeep Kaur is an independent journalist and writes on gender, development and technology. She tweets as @gagandeepjourno