NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – For more than three decades, Sabto’s husband beat her almost every night with a wooden rod.
Like many victims of domestic violence, the 62-year-old housewife hid the bruises on her battered body and kept quiet, scared of her husband, mistrustful of the police and worried what her neighbours would think.
But one night in March, when he staggered into their single room house in north Delhi’s slum colony of Burari and lifted the rod to strike her, the elderly woman rose up and grabbed it, hitting him back with a force she never thought she had.
“He hasn’t touched me since,” said Sabto as she demonstrated her newly-learnt karate punches outside Burari's run-down community centre.
“The self-defence classes taught me that I was not weak and that I could end his beatings. My life is peaceful at last,” added the grandmother.
Sabto is one of a small, but growing number of women who are shattering the culture of silence that surrounds crimes such as domestic violence and rape – emboldened by initiatives like self defence classes and community patrols run by Delhi police following the brutal gang rape and murder of a woman a year ago.
The case, which prompted thousands of urban Indians to protest against rising violence against women, highlighted the fact that inaction on the part of India’s male-dominated, unsympathetic and underresourced police force was one of the main reasons why perpetrators acted with a sense of impunity.
One year on, the outcry has forced the 80,000-strong police force in the capital to try to revamp its patriarchal image through a series of measures that are now helping more women speak out about abuses.
“The December 16 incident was a watershed incident because we specifically analysed the problems faced by women,” said Dharmendra Kumar, Delhi Police's Special Commissioner for Crime.
“We found, for example, that women felt they were dissuaded to lodge a complaint by police, who would tell them they would be made an object of ridicule … or that the officer would tone down the gravity of the offence, making it less stringent."
“We've taken steps to ensure that these issues are resolved and through various initiatives we have encouraged women to come forward and lodge their complaints, something they were not doing earlier,” he added.
There were 1,472 rapes reported in the capital this year until November 30 compared with 642 the previous year, said Kumar. The number of complaints of molestation rose to 3,182 from 612 in 2012.
While the increase can be attributed to greater awareness thanks to voracious media reporting of gender crimes and vocal campaigns by women’s rights groups, police say their own initiatives are also making a difference.
A law introduced after the Delhi gang rape holds police more accountable – they face up to three years imprisonment if they fail to register sexual offences.
Duty officers and constables on the beat also attend gender sensitisation classes where lawyers and social workers explain the problems faced by victims of sexual assault and senior officers provide information on new legislation aimed at protecting women.
In most of the city's 160 police stations, women's help desks have been set up, staffed around the clock by a female police officer. A toll-free women's helpline – number 1091 – was set up a year ago in the police headquarters and it receives 250 calls a day on average, mainly cases of domestic violence, sexual harassment and molestation.
The police are also recruiting more women, senior officials say, adding that only eight percent of the force are women.
WOMEN ON THE BEAT
In the cramped lanes of Burari colony, women constables, dressed in their khaki salwar-khameez uniforms, walk the beat, moving from door-to-door during the day and chatting with housewives while their husbands are at work.
“They ask us about our problems such as if our husband is beating us or whether our daughters are facing any problems going and coming back from school,” said Reshmi Devi, standing in her doorway.
“It's good. They give us their cell numbers and we can call them anytime. I know some women have now reported domestic violence problems and lodged complaints against their own husbands.”
Shubra Mendiratta from the Delhi Commission for Women said women are becoming aware of a change in police attitudes and feel duty-bound to make complaints.
“We are seeing more women feeling more confident to come forward,” said Mendiratta.
Police vans are deployed in areas around university campuses and outside schools during opening and closing times and constables patrol other vulnerable areas such as public toilets, where sexual assaults are common.
In government schools and poor, unauthorised colonies and slums, female police officers have begun teaching self defence classes where school girls and housewives aged from six to 60 learn how to counter blows and strike out at attackers.
But while women's rights groups have welcomed such initiatives, they say crimes against women are still widely under-reported and that much more needs to be done – not just in Delhi, but across the country.
For example, investment in training police to investigate gender crimes is desperately needed, they say, adding that rape investigations are often shoddy due to poor collection of evidence, resulting in weak prosecutions, few convictions and lenient jail terms.
They are also calling for legal reforms to ensure speedy justice. Despite the establishment of fast-track courts, India still has far too few courts, judges and prosecutors for its 1.2 billion people and there is a backlog of millions of cases.
In fact, there are more than 23,000 rape cases alone waiting to be tried by high courts, according to the law ministry. The process is so drawn out that many cases are dropped and the accused acquitted long before all the evidence is heard and a judgment pronounced.
While reported rape cases in India rose by more than 50 percent between 2001 and 2012, conviction rates have dropped to 41 percent from 24 percent in the same period, says charity ActionAid India.
“The extremely low conviction rates send out a signal to perpetrators that they are free to act with impunity and can deter women from reporting rape and other crimes of sexual violence,” said Sehjo Singh, ActionAid India's director of programmes and policy.
“If the Indian government is serious when it says it wants to reduce rape and other violent crimes against women, it must ensure that every case of sexual assault is treated with sensitivity and equal importance ... and that there are more convictions.”