LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

India's parliament has approved a new sexual assault legislation that strengthens penalties for rape, and makes stalking a crime. The law is a direct result of the clamor that followed the gruesome gang rape of a young, Delhi woman on a bus in December. She later died of her injuries, and that attack triggered public demands for better policing, swifter justice and safer streets.

From New Delhi, NPR's Julie McCarthy has this report on a commuting option welcomed by many women there.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: For female passengers worried about their safety, New Delhi's metro system eases the mind.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Male passengers are requested not to sit on the seats reserved for ladies.

MCCARTHY: Welcome to the women's - only- compartment, where lawyer Saloni Chowdhry climbs aboard twice a day.

SALONI CHOWDHRY: I prefer it from the general compartment because it's more safer, less of eve teasing, so I prefer the ladies' compartment any day.

MCCARTHY: Eve-teasing is an Indian euphemism for how men harass women - pass sexually charged remarks their way, or brush up against them to make physical contact; everyday, sexist abuse of India's everywoman or Eve, as the Biblical name denotes.

Have you been harassed on the train before?

CHOWDHRY: Yes.

MCCARTHY: What's happened to you on the train? What do men do?

CHOWDHRY: Just being - little touchy, and at times when you have - it's a bad word, how they want to feel you. So for the last - oh, like, say three years since the ladies' compartment has started, I think we are much more - safer now. Yeah, you feel better, and even if it is little crowded, they're all ladies around you ,so you feel more secure.

MCCARTHY: Cairo, Tokyo, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro - all reserve subway cars for women, to spare them from being groped or harassed. Pritpal Kaur, a radio jockey, says New Delhi's single-sex compartment is a refuge; especially at night, when she says men have leered at her and deployed Hindi slang that refers to women, delicately translated, as hot stuff.

PRITPAL KAUR: Hot stuff, exactly.

MCCARTHY: And you hear them say that?

KAUR: Once or twice, I slapped them back, but it not works every time because sometimes, I got reactions back.

MCCARTHY: Anoo Bhuyan, NPR's local producer, criss-crosses the city on the subway, frequently jumping onto the general compartment rather than the women's out of convenience, and says that all she sees are men.

ANOO BHUYAN: And I'm looking to my left, my right, my - not on myself, and I cannot see another female head. Like, as far as I can see, I can only see men. And that's not because all the women are in the ladies' carriage. That's because there are just not enough women going to work, not enough women going to college; women sitting at home. So it's not because, you know, they're all packed into ladies' carriage - because the ladies' carriage is not always so crowded. It's just that they're not out there. They're not in the city.

MCCARTHY: When the ladies' carriage fills, there is a dormlike camaraderie as young women, like Sonal Sinha, survey fashion trends among fellow passengers and swap gossip.

SONAL SINHA: Sometimes you even hear gossiping two girls about others. Fantastic.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCARTHY: Akanksha Gupta says women can get plenty pushy in the lone female carriage. But at least there, she says, she can relax and not worry about men staring at say, her neckline.

AKANKSHA GUPTA: When I'm in the ladies' compartment, I feel satisfaction. I mean, no matter if I sleep, I don't have to wear a scarf or anything at all. But when I'm in the general compartment, you know, I have to be very careful.

MCCARTHY: A recent Times of India survey said 96 percent of women in Delhi feel unsafe after sunset. A glimpse at recent headlines provides reason enough. "Woman Alleges Gang Rape In Lawyer's Chamber," "More Shame: Five Rapes In Two Days," "Woman Resists Molestation, Shot Dead."

Men and women's perceptions of the problem can differ widely. Rajesh Kumar travels in the general compartment with his female colleague Manisha Murli. He says out of 100 men, perhaps two or three engage in eve teasing or unwanted touching. I ask Manisha: Do you think it's that little?

MANISHA MURLI: No. It's not that little. It's - we can say it's 50 or 60 percent.

MCCARTHY: Half of the men - half of the men.

MURLI: Half of the men.

MCCARTHY: That's a lot of men.

MURLI: Yeah.

MCCARTHY: Some religious and political leaders say the answer is to hide women away; not to go out after dark; dress modestly. Eighteen-year-old Parinita Chaudhary steps into the women-only carriage and says the prevailing attitude, especially among the older generations, is that she is asking for trouble if she doesn't avoid men and keep to herself.

PARINITA CHAUDHARY: It is what they think - that girls initiate the problem, the clothing sense of the girls initiate the problems; that - that's why the girls prefer that we should go in the ladies' carriage, and we should avoid all those guys. It's not that they tell the male to change their mind, or tendency. They tell the girls, and they blame the girls - that, you should avoid it.

MCCARTHY: In the recent debate over the new sexual assault law, male MPs portrayed utter incomprehension at terms such as stalking and voyeurism. If a boy doesn't follow a girl, one said, how can romance happen? The challenge for India, says activist and author Kamla Bhasin, is in changing men.

KAMLA BHASIN: On changing their mindsets. And I am fed up when - each time we say women shouldn't do this, women shouldn't do that. Each time they say women shouldn't do this, they should a hundred times say men and boys should not do this.

MCCARTHY: India's gender equality is among the worst in the world, according to a new U.N. report on human development, which ranks India behind Pakistan. Eighteen-year-old science student Parinita Chaudhary says her country must resolve the disconnect between the dazzling rise of the new India, and its outmoded treatment of women.

CHAUDHARY: They say that India is developing, but economically is not the things that has to be developed. The mind has also to be developed. It's not only the infrastructure that we should change. It's the mind that has to be changed.

MCCARTHY: How do you do that?

CHAUDHARY: I think very slowly. It will take a lot of time.

MCCARTHY: The emphasis, in India, has been on protecting women rather than giving women more freedoms - like the freedom to be safe, or the freedom from fear. The choice to sit among women on a train is a form of security. But the question arises: Can segregating the sexes be a long-term solution for what ails India? Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One Indian woman is setting her sights high, Mount Everest high, as she looks to overcome a traumatic injury. Two years ago, Arunima Sinha was a nationally ranked volleyball player when she was thrown from a moving train. The accident resulted in the amputation of her right leg.

WERTHEIMER: Her volleyball career was over, but she found inspiration in the story of a cricketer on India's national team. He came back to play after beating cancer.

GREENE: Sinha decided to move forward to achieve a lifelong dream, climbing Mount Everest. She trained with India's first woman to climb the mountain and she received advice from the world's only double amputee to summit Everest.

WERTHEIMER: The 26-year-old set out on her journey today.

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