The regional government in New Delhi, India, withdrew the tax on chili pepper spray last week in an effort to make the self-defense item more affordable to women.
The Indian capital has seen a rise in incidences of assault on women in recent months. In December, mass protests arose in New Delhi after the widely publicized gang rape of a paramedical student who was riding the bus home from a movie theater.
The student died weeks later due to her injuries and public outrage was directed at the New Delhi government for not ensuring public security.
The Value Added Tax (VAT) on pepper spray is 12.5 percent. A small bottle costs about 150–200 rupees (US$3–$4). The minimum wage varies according to skill level, but unskilled to semiskilled workers get about 250–280 rupees a day.
While removing the tax will help some lower income women, some say it won’t address the root problems.
“Only carrying a pepper spray wouldn’t do,” said Vandana Sharma, president of the Delhi-based organization Nari Raksha Samiti, which helps women who have suffered violence. “We have to work at the grass roots. There is a need to bring good values in the family. Working parents need to give adequate time to their children rather than leaving them alone and vulnerable to all bad influences.”
The organization has been working for the past 65 years, even before India gained freedom from British rule, with minor and adult women who are victims of domestic violence, rapes, and other types of assaults.
As India’s economy expands, women are entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers, but the threat to their security is also growing.
Swati Sharma, a young woman who commutes about 25 miles between New Delhi and Noida daily for work, said: “If someone assaults you, you’ll think of running off from there. That would be the first reaction. You won’t think [clearly] and will most likely not get the chance to open your bag and take out the chili spray.”
A study conducted by Navteq, a global provider of navigation-enabled maps, and TNS Market Research found 87 percent of women feel that New Delhi is the least safe city in the country to travel in. The study was done across four major Indian cities with 760 respondents.
In New Delhi, 88 percent of women remain unaware of their rights, according to a survey conducted by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) Ladies League.
Sharma said there are many reasons for the increase in assaults. One reason, said Sharma, is the sexual content on television. Also, the slums are growing as many find it difficult to find employment—an environment in which youth grow up without a good moral compass.
In the slums, families live in single-room quarters, without privacy. Education is lacking, and the cultural identity is not strong.
She reminisced about the respect for women in the culture of India’s past: “In olden days, when a girl would get married in an Indian village, the whole village would participate and contribute. Now a girl is seen as an object. Society has changed. Everywhere on media, magazines girls are shown as objects in less clothing [or] half nude. All this has badly impacted young minds.”
Earlier Efforts to Protect Women
Aside from lowering the cost of pepper spray, officials have publicized tips for women on how to prevent an attack—they suggest vomiting or acting crazy to turn off attackers.
In 2011, Delhi Police started a Mirchi Jhonk (pepper spray) campaign along with NGO SKMS Memorial Foundation, to teach women how to make pepper spray at home with chili powder and water.
Women would only pay about 20 rupees (US$0.37) for the same amount of spray in bottles that retail for 150–200 rupees (US$3–4). The campaign gained some traction with 14,937 likes on its Facebook page.
Anti-Rape Bill Passed
On March 21, Indian Parliament passed the Anti-Rape Bill, which creates more stringent punishment for voyeurism, stalking, and rape. It also keeps the age for consensual sex at 18 years old.
India’s Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said the law would impact Indian society for years to come and would protect the dignity and rights of women, according to local publication The Hindu.
Sharma was relieved after the bill passed, saying rapists are more likely to be tried in a timely manner and punished.
“We have faced lots of challenges with the police,” Sharma said. “If the rape victim is an adult, the police would refuse to lodge a case with a notion that the boy’s and the girl’s relation didn’t go well [Bani nahi in Hindi].”
If the victim is a child, Sharma said, the police do not talk to the child in a way that would encourage him or her to open up. When a child does not give them enough information, they say they are unable to file a report.
Even after the mass outrage against the December incident, there have been reports of rapes in moving vehicles in the capital, particularly when young men have been drinking alcohol. Sharma asked, “When alcohol is being sold freely in the city, what can a chili spray do?”
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