World

Is a pistol the answer to India's rape problem?

Jon Henley

Named after the 23-year-old who was raped and killed in Delhi in 2012, the Nirbheek pistol has been designed for women. But it has drawn criticism.

The factory owner says the gun would increase women's confidence and deter attackers. (AFP)

It weighs barely 500g, is slim enough to slip into a purse, features an attractive darkwood handle on a black titanium-alloy body and comes in a bejewelled maroon case.

Engraved on its barrel is the name Nirbheek: Hindi for fearless, and a synonym for Nirbhaya, the name given to the unnamed 23-year-old Delhi woman whose torture, gang rape and, ultimately, death at the hands of six men in December 2012 sparked national and international outrage.

The launch by India's state-run Indian Ordnance Factory of what is billed as the country's first handgun for women, and named after the victim of such a horrific murder, has drawn fierce criticism from women's groups and anti-gun campaigners who say it is an admission of state failure and an insult to Nirbhaya's memory.

But Abdul Hameed, the factory owner, told the BBC the gun would increase women's confidence and deter attackers: "We believe that women who carry this gun will feel fearless," he said.

Despite tough new laws against rape, a greater police presence and the launch of dedicated women's helplines in several cities, shocking attacks on women – such as last week's gang rape of a 51-year-old Danish tourist in New Delhi – remain commonplace in India: general violence and homicides using guns may be falling, but levels of reported sexual crimes have increased significantly in recent years.

Rape still frequent
Figures from the National Crime Records Bureau suggest one rape is committed every 22 minutes.

Only 15% of the estimated 40-million guns in India are held legally, and while the total number of guns is the second-highest number in the world after the US, ownership per capita remains comparatively low at three for every 100 people.

But faced with what many see as the state's inability to assure their security, there is mounting evidence that middle-class women in particular are turning to firearms.

Anti-gun activists have reacted with horror to the launch of Nirbheek, saying women's safety should be the government's responsibility.

They also object to the weapon's name, which was suggested by the factory's staff, and question whether carrying a gun actually makes anyone safer – research in eight Indian states by the Women Gun Survivors Network suggests people are 12 times more likely to be shot dead if they are armed when attacked.

Critics also say that the high cost of the weapon, about £1 200 – 40% more than India's average annual income – is far beyond the reach of the vast majority of women.

Many have also pointed out that firearms are banned in almost all public places in India.

A "gun for women" sends entirely the wrong message, women's rights activist Ruchira Gupta told CNN.

"Nirbhaya was a victim of violence caused by a desire of six men to project their masculinity through domination," she said.

"Ultimately, we have to challenge the culture of domination and violence through nonviolence, not through introducing more tools of violence." – guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014

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