Indian women 'occupy the night streets' to protest reported mass molestation

A woman holds a sign as she takes part in the #IWillGoOut rally, to show solidarity with the Women's March in Washington, in Bengaluru, India, Jan 21, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI/CHENNAI (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - Hundreds of women gathered in over 30 towns and cities across India late on Saturday (Jan 21), saying they were "occupying the night streets" to demand safety in public spaces after reports of the mass molestation of women in Bengaluru city on New Year's Eve.

From the capital New Delhi to Kolkata in the east, Chennai in the south and Mumbai in the west, activists, students, and professionals gathered at marches and street plays or sang songs and recited poetry on equality for women.

The participants, which also included many men, chanted slogans such as "Freedom, Freedom, Freedom!" and held banners saying "Take back the night. Break the silence. End the violence" and "Nobody asks what my molester was wearing."

"Since the age of 12, I have never felt comfortable or safe on the streets - day or night, but first time I have ever attended a march like this ," said Anuradha Sinha, 37, a program manager at a e-commerce company.

"I have a three-year-old daughter and given the situation we face today in terms of sexual harassment, I don't want my daughter to grow up and endure we have to go through every day. It has to change."

The marches coincided with marches being held around the world following US President Donald Trump's inauguration on Friday, but organisers of the #IWillGoOut campaign said their demands were different from those in other countries.

The campaign in India was launched this month after reports of sexual assaults during celebrations on Dec 31 in Bengaluru, where several women were allegedly groped and assaulted by a mob in the city's central business district.

The state home minister later told television networks "such incidents do happen", while another politician blamed women for following "western culture", dressing inappropriately and staying out late.

The attacks, reminiscent of those blamed on migrants in German cities during New Year's Eve celebrations in 2015, shocked many Indians, since Bengaluru, home to many well-educated professionals, is regarded as safer for women than New Delhi.

Sex crimes are common in India, where the National Crime Record Bureau says more than 34,000 rapes were reported in 2015, although women sometimes do not report assaults for fear of the associated social stigma.

The fatal gang rape of a woman by six assailants aboard a bus in Delhi in December 2012 sparked global outrage and led to calls for greater protection for women moving around India's cities.

While the government has brought in tougher legislation on sexual assault, activists say more could have been done.

At least 30 Indian towns and cities - including Hyderabad, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Puducherry, Lucknow, Pune, Jammu, Dharamsala and Bhopal - held events, with a few hundred participants turning out in each city, said organisers.

In Bengaluru, where around 300 people gathered, organisers said most women have experienced being pinched, groped, molested, or faced lewd comments in public - from travelling on the bus to shopping in the market to walking in the street.

"I have so many stories of being made to feel uncomfortable in public spaces," said Divya Titus, one of the organisers of the Bengaluru march.

"Despite a legislation, we still see sexual harassment. I decided enough is enough. We have to stop normalising these events."

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