India: The women living in fear of violence
It is almost every Indian woman's nightmare, lived daily when in public — a stream of obscene comments, unwanted hands being placed on them and then being blamed for causing the sexual violence.
The gang-rape and beating of a 23-year-old student by six men on a bus in New Delhi may have sparked days of protests and demands for authorities to take tougher action, but for women in India it is just an extreme example of what they have to live with.
Many in India's capital and across the country say they are constantly on guard, fearing everything from the routine gropings they suffer on public buses to far more violent assaults. Some say they have structured their entire lives around protecting themselves and their children.
Here are the stories of three women:
Gita Ganeshan, a 52-year-old bank worker, moved to New Delhi with her husband four years ago from the central city of Bhopal to protect their oldest daughter after she was attacked in the Indian capital, where she was studying.
The young woman had been out for a morning walk in a park near her house when four men surrounded her and began tormenting her, Ganeshan said.
"One of the men squeezed her breast. She screamed and kept screaming and running till she came home," she said.
She said she and her daughter would go to the park when she visited the city.
"This was a park where we would walk every day. The girls would jog or run and we would walk along," she said. "Just that one day, she went alone and this happened and it changed our outlook as far the safety of our girls was concerned."
Her daughter gave up jogging and wouldn't leave the house alone for months. Her parents got themselves transferred to the city to look after her.
"That was when we decided that protecting our children had to be our first priority. We've given them a good education. We cannot now tell them now not to pursue their careers because it is not safe to be out working late," she said.
She has trained the young woman to be alert: "Never let your guard down."
Now, Ganeshan is thinking of moving to the central city of Indore to protect her younger daughter, who got a job there.
But for now, she has arranged a special plan to watch over her from far away.
Every evening, her daughter calls as soon as she gets off the bus on her way home from work. The two talk for the next 15 minutes while the young woman walks the kilometer to her home, Ganeshan said.
"Every day, I wake up and my first thought is of my daughters and their safety. I call them up, or they call me," she said. "It is a real fear we confront when, even for a few hours, we are not in touch over the telephone."
Sandhya Jadon, 26, a lawyer from the northern town of Agra, said the harassment starts as soon as she leaves her home.
"For most men, any woman who is out of the four walls of her house is fair game," she said.
Last week, she was repeatedly groped on a public minibus.
"It was broad daylight. I was heading to court, and this man kept trying to touch my thigh. I shouted at him and he had the gall to ask me, 'So what can you do to stop me?'" she said.
She shouted, made the driver stop and got off. But the man continued sitting in the bus and grinning at his audacity. Not one of the 10 other passengers came to her help. Most looked away, she said.
"All day that day I was disturbed. I was shaking inside but also angry. Why do we women have to suffer this?" she asked.
For the next few days, she avoided public buses for fear she would run into the man again.
She feels relatively safe at court, in her lawyer's robes. But she still doesn't stay late at work and asks her parents to meet her at the bus stop to walk her home.
"But the fear — that something bad will happen if you are not careful — is always with you. It hangs over your work; it hangs over everything you do — what you wear, or don't wear; how you talk or how you walk. It is like this big suffocating cloud hanging over you every single day of your life," she said.
Priyanka Khatri, a 21-year-old college student, said fear of attack has forced her to limit her world.
There are no movies in the evening, no late-night parties, no outside activity at all after sundown. College events are cut short because she has to get home.
"Whatever happens, I have to be home before dark. Otherwise, my parents get so worried and they will keep calling me on my cell phone till they know I'm safe," she said.
Khatri said she will only go out in the evening accompanied by her parents to a nearby temple or a family wedding.
She is shadowed by fear when she gets dressed in the morning.
"I wouldn't dream of wearing shorts or skirts in public," she said.
She is petrified by her daily commute to school on public buses.
"Usually I carry a safety pin with me, because in buses there are always men who will try to touch you," Khatri said. "Some men are so brazen, you tick them off and they will persist on groping you. Then you feel you have to do something. So I stick my pin into them, or I use my elbow, and just jab them with my elbow. But that too makes you afraid."
And she has tempered her dreams to fit the reality of life in Delhi. The outgoing badminton enthusiast longed to be an event planner. Instead, she is looking for teaching jobs, "because then I can be home before dark."
If her precautions fail and she is attacked, Khatri has a backup plan, she said.
"I will scream. I always have a scream."
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