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Anti-Rape Clothes Fail to Address Culture Behind India's Crisis

Image: INDIA-CRIME-RAPE-PROTEST

Indian dancers perform a piece on sexual violence against women during a rally organised by "The Red Brigade - Bring Bangalore Back" to protest against the recent incidents of sexual abuse, molestation and rapes against women in Bangalore on July 20, 2014. AFP - Getty Images

When three young Indian engineering students first revealed the “anti-rape” bra they invented last year, it received international media attention. The SHE (which stands for Society Harnessing Equipment) delivers a strong electric shock to potential rapists and attackers, and also has the ability to send an alert text message to the wearer’s friends and family.

The product, co-created by 21-year old student Manisha Mohan, now has the President of India's stamp of approval. Earlier this month, Mohan was selected by President Pranab Mukherjee to be one of the inaugural Innovation Scholars-in-Residence in New Delhi.

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“The harassment of the girl in Delhi was the turning point for all to realize that we need to take a step against this menace,” Mohan told Ventunotech, referring to the now-infamous 2012 New Delhi attack, in which a young student was brutally gang raped on a city bus and killed.

“That was the time when it actually hit me that I can use technology to evade rape and incidences related to assault," said Mohan.

The SHE is just one of several sartorial inventions created by a new generation of India’s entrepreneurs that are intended to protect women against assault. Last month, a pair of college students from the city of Varanasi unveiled a new line of anti-rape jeans. The designers, who are both in their early twenties, also cited the New Delhi bus attack as one of the main reasons they decided to move forward with the idea.

"People should do what they need to do to feel safe...But a pair of jeans does not reflect the experience of 70 percent of the population.”

“My father is often making himself ill with worry each time I am coming home late,” co-designer Diksha Pathak said in a recent interview. “These terrible gang rapes of women that we have heard so much about recently shocked me and my colleague to the very core.”

In the aftermath of the horrific 2012 attack, much more attention has been paid -- both domestically and internationally -- to sexual assaults across the country, with headlines and street protests demanding justice now common. The stories span the nation: a 6-year old raped by school employees in Bangalore; a photojournalist attacked and raped in Mumbai; two teenagers gang raped and hanged from trees in Uttar Pradesh.

According to government figures, a rape is reported every 20 minutes in India. Crimes against women have increased by 7.1% since 2010. Over the last decade, child rape cases have gone up 336%.

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In response, students across the country have sprung into action, designing anti-rape jackets, smartphone apps, and wristwatches. While all of these creations have helped sparked much-needed discussion about violence against women in India, some wonder if the conversation that’s being started is actually the one that’s needed.

“I applaud the ingenuity [of these inventors]. People should do what they need to do to feel safe," said Indian journalist Sonia Faleiro. “But a pair of jeans does not reflect the experience of 70 percent of the population.”

Faleiro, whose most recent book “Beautiful Thing” explored the lives of a group of young women who worked in Mumbai’s dance bars, recently interviewed several 18 and 19-year-old women from a village in the Indian state of West Bengal about how they have changed their behavior since the New Delhi rape case.

Image: INDIA-COURT-WOMEN-RAPE-FILES
Demonstrators call for the death sentence for the rapists following the brutal sexual attack of a young student on New Delhi bus in December 2012. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP - Getty Images

“These girls were saying two things,” Faleiro explains. “They stay close to home -- which is terrible because they could go somewhere like Calcutta to go to college -- but because they are afraid they stay close to their families.”

“They also said that they move around in clusters,” she continued, noting that none of the young women she spoke to ever traveled anywhere alone. “How much can an individual really develop if they always move around in big groups?”

Despite new laws enacted after the 2012 bus attack, including the institution of the death penalty for repeat offenders, Faleiro and others believe that band-aid solutions like "anti-rape" products fail to address the underlying problem of culture.

"Rape is sometimes right, sometimes wrong."

One lawmaker was recently caught on camera threatening his rivals' families with rape in Calcutta. He first insisted he was misquoted, then later apologized after his own wife condemned his remarks. Another female politician said rape victims were "responsible to an extent," then attempted to excuse her remarks as her "personal opinion." On social media, young Indians and others have been circulating lists rounding up outlandish quotes about rape from public officials, including one minister who claimed rapes "happen by mistake," another who questioned the severity of punishment for rapists by saying, "Boys make mistakes," and a third who said, "Rape is sometimes right, sometimes wrong."

For Faleiro, whatever happens in the public sphere is indicative of a culture that begins at home.

“In India, most of the rapes happen within the family,” says Faleiro. “It happens behind the closed door. These people aren’t going to stop what they are doing because of a piece of clothing.”

Image: INDIA-CRIME-RAPE-PROTEST-FILES
Activists participate in a rally organised by "The Red Brigade - Bring Bangalore Back" campaign to protest against the recent incidents of sexual abuse, molestation and rapes against women in Bangalore. MANJUNATH KIRAN / AFP - Getty Images