In India, Schoolgirls Look Forward to Self-Defense Classes

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BENGALURU, India (WOMENSENEWS)–In response to growing national attention to the problem of rape in India, the government issued a directive this past fall strongly encouraging all public and private schools to train female students in self-defense.

Sweshika K., 14, a ninth grader in North Bengaluru, says the training will help her escape attackers in a place where the threat of an attack has been growing. “All girls in our country must learn self-defense,” she says.

In interviews, five other girls who also live in south India and have some experience with self-defense training agreed.

In Sweshika’s hometown of Karnataka, rape cases doubled from 2009 to 2014, according to Home Minister K.J George’s statement in the state assembly. Nationwide, more than 3,000 rape cases are reported each year, but accurate numbers are hard to get because not all cases are reported to the police.

The trainings recommended by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) have attracted some criticism for putting the onus on potential victims.

“I believe . . . society should make the place safe for girls,” one reader said in the online comments section of a news story in The Hindu about the directive. “The boys, future men of the society, need to be educated to respect girls, the future women of the society.”

Goda Ram is a teacher in south India. “Of course, the CBSE directive does not go far enough,” she said in a phone interview. “It will not ensure that rapes do not occur, but it is one step, to begin with. Sensitizing boys is a larger issue, which is beyond the purview of this directive. That would be a wider, socio-cultural issue that will take time to show results.”

Wide Benefits

Many schools in Bengaluru had been teaching self-defense for girls even before the national directive.

Martial arts expert Esther Cecelia Butta, who has a third-degree black belt and teaches self-defense in local schools, said this type of training provides more than physical techniques and that it benefits both girls and boys.

“Both boys and girls should learn karate, martial arts or taekwondo because when they learn it, they acquire self-confidence, self-control, become strong, give respect and show courtesy,” she said in a phone interview. “Hence, boys won’t misbehave with girls,”

Proponents say the training has other benefits for girls. “Teaching girls to defend themselves would be useful means to empower them,” an official with the national Central Board of Secondary Education said in a press statement. “The training will not only assist these students in becoming aware of their surroundings, but increase their self-confidence and sense of safety in difficult circumstances.”

One young woman, however, said that danger can lurk even in a class where she is supposed to be studying her own safety. Varshini Rao, 18, told Teen Voices at Women’s eNews that when she was learning self-defense at an afterschool center the male instructor touched her in an inappropriate manner as the class was leaving. She was too embarrassed to tell an adult about the incident.

Yugandhar M., 15, and Vaishnavi, 14, both said the self-defense classes are a start but that boys should also be taught to treat girls as equals.

“Boys should be sensitized to give all females respect,” Vaishnavi said.

Concern about rape in India hit the national and international radar in 2012 when a 23-year-old trainee physiotherapist was brutally raped by a public bus driver and his friends in Delhi. She died in the hospital from injuries and infection caused by an iron rod inserted into her vagina by one of the attackers. Indian law does not allow rape victims to be named in the press so the victim was called “Nirbhaya,” which means “fearless.”

In 2014 documentary maker Leslee Udwin drew more attention to the problem with her film “Daughters of India,” which is based on the infamous Nirbhaya rape.

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