NEW DELHI – Monique serves milk tea to her guests as they arrive. Small talk goes from cricket to family, with each of the eight other women telling of their sons' and daughters' recent accomplishments. But there is a weary feeling in the air as they discuss their daughters’ future. Will they get married? Will they find a good job? Or will they become the latest statistic in the country’s ongoing pandemic of sexual violence against women?
These are the questions women are now asking in “local support 101” – a group of nine mothers that meets weekly in the Delhi neighborhood of Jor Bag, where they discuss the latest news and reports of violence meted out against young women and girls across India. It is one of numerous "support groups" that have sprouted up across the capital city as families attempt to deal with a wave of sexual violence targeting females nationwide.
Occupy.com attended three different sessions, talking with mothers about the future of the country and how to end the rise in violence against women. No group was the same.
At the Jor Bag group, Monique was the most outspoken, though her anger and frustration became more apparent with each passing comment. The group has gone to the police, she said, to ask for more night patrols and protections around schools.
“The police listened, but they haven’t done anything yet that makes us pleased,” said Monique, 32, who is the mother of three daughters aged 14, 12 and nine. “We worry about our girls going to school and being in public. It is what all parents do, but in India it is getting very bad.”
She and other women here referred to the internationally known case of the young woman who in December was gang-raped and murdered on a local bus by a group of teenagers. The case sparked a massive outpouring of protests and demands from women’s rights groups across India, who called on government and security forces to do more to halt the pandemic of sexual violence.
While a Delhi court handed down stiff jail sentences for the guilty men, Sunita, a 29-year-old mother of a 10-year-old girl, said the ruling hasn't done much to protect women and girls in the country. She told of being at a local supermarket when two men began harassing her and then assaulting her.
“I was just shopping for some flour and vegetables when these two men, maybe in their early 20s, just started asking me for sex,” she revealed. “Then they began touching and groping my breasts and genital area before I could get away. Nobody in the market moved and even as I screamed, I was helpless. Thankfully they ran off.”
But other women in India are not so lucky. The number of reported rapes has increased, including those of girls as young as five. Without adequate legal recourse, Monique and Sunita said they see little hope for women in the country, which is why their group is leading weekly marches to educate people on the street about how to stop violence against women when they see it.
“We are working with other groups across the city, and we’ve heard of similar groups in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Pune and Calcutta to name a few," said Monique. "We want to get out there in public and start making people rally for women’s rights and protection."
Local and international organizations have joined a growing movement to help make Indians aware of the crisis. In May, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Rashida Manjoo, spent 10 days in the country visiting numerous states to learn about sexual violence in public, in the home and in the workplace. Her statements shocked people internationally -- though they did not come as a surprise to many women in the country.
“There is a generalized sense of insecurity in public spaces, amenities, transport facilities in particular," she said. "And women are often victims of different forms of sexual harassment and assault.”
Manjoo's visit to India came four months after the fatal gang rape of the 23-year-old student on a moving bus spotlighted the lack of safety and security for women, as well as the social attitudes towards them. The incident prompted the government to tighten laws against sexual violence and to mandate stricter punishments including, in some cases, the death penalty for rape.
The envoy expressed concern about the declining female sex ratio in India, which is widely blamed on discrimination against girls. She said the state’s failure to prevent violence against women has helped make violence a reality in their lives. Manjoo said that although laws exist, women are often unable to register their complaints. She also said the problem cuts across economic classes, and blamed the crisis on deeply entrenched norms of patriarchy and cultural practices.
With reference to the new law against sexual violence, Manjoo said India had lost an opportunity to establish a broader law that would ensure equality and nondiscrimination against women.
“It was a golden moment for India to examine whether the legislative policy measures are sufficient to address deep systemic structural aspects, and that is what I regret, that it was a lost opportunity," Manjoo said. "India has an amazing Constitution, equality and nondiscrimination, special measures, etc.
"The challenge is how do you translate constitutional guarantees to make sure that they can be enforceable.”
For women in the country -- which has already seen a massive drop-off of female tourists in the past year -- support groups seem, for now, to be the only way to voice concerns while protecting girls from abuses by the public.
“We feel strongly that these groups will create new windows that can open -- and allow people to be open about -- the problem," added Sunita.
"We need to recognize that there is a serious problem in this country and men and women have to come together to get it done and stop the rape and assaults."