In the wake of the recent horrifying gang rape of a 23-year-old student in the Indian capital, an increasing number of young urban women have started taking security into their own hands.
As widespread protest rallies triggered by the rape that took place in a moving bus in New Delhi continued across the country, a senior Indian police officer last week advised women to avoid sex attacks by using chili powder.
"Women should learn how to defend themselves," K. P. Raghuvanshi, police chief of Thane, a satellite city of Mumbai, said last week.
"They should not go out after dark and carry with them a packet of chili powder and throw it at potential attackers."
Director of the Centre for Social Research in Delhi Ranjana Kumari said that the problem was a societal one and that it could not be solved by following advice to carry around chili powder.
"This is a sexist solution. They want women to stay at home. And how is chili powder going to help against six or seven men?" she told the media.
No protection for women
Meenakshi Sharma, a college student who took part in the protests against the rape in Delhi said the comment by Mr. Raghuvanshi highlighted the fact that the police was unable to provide security to women.
"He said women should not go out after sunset. It's stupid advice in an age when we are calling for gender equality in all fields of life," she told DW.
"I shall go out after sunset, if I need to. No part of the country is safe and the state is unable to provide us security. Last week, I bought a can of pepper spray and I am always keeping it handy whenever I go out."
Like Sharma, tens of thousands of girls and women have begun carrying pepper spray in India; last week's gang rape in New Delhi has triggered a spurt in sale of pepper spray in many cities, shop owners and spray distributors confirm.
Angad Arora, eastern India distributor of one of India's largest pepper spray brand "Cobra Self Defense Pepper Spray" said sales have shot up across the country in the past week.
"I was supplying 50 or 60 cans per month at the beginning of this year. Now I am selling close to 700 cans a month. Lots of inquiries are coming from cities and smaller towns," Mr. Arora, director of Calcutta Chemical Corporation, told DW.
In western Indian city of Pune, another Cobra pepper spray seller, J. George, concurs.
"I was selling just 2 or 3 cans a week in the beginning of this year. But now I am selling almost 10 cans a week. After the Guwahati molestation the sale soared," George told DW, referring to the molestation of a teenage girl in Guwahati by around 30 people on July 9.
"We noticed another fresh spurt in spray sales after the Delhi rape. Most of my customers are young working women. More than half of them are international call centre workers, who often work at night."
While the victim of the gang rape still lies in a hospital in critical condition, in an unusual televised address India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Christmas Eve that he would do his best to get the rapists punished for their "monstrous" crime.
"I assure you, we will make all possible efforts to ensure [the] security and safety of women in this country," Mr. Singh said.
But most women still do not believe they are safe.
Women "at war"
Nisha Singh, a call centre worker in Hyderabad said that the prime minister had no machinery under his command that could quell attacks on women and so she, too, has decided to arm herself with pepper spray.
"I could not get pepper spray in Hyderabad. I searched online and finally got one can couriered from Pune. I am sure there is a huge demand of this spray among girls and soon many ordinary shops will sell it," Singh said.
Rights activist and a professor in Shillong's North Eastern Hill University Prasenjit Biswas said the number of rape cases throughout the country had been on the rise and that it was pushing women to the brink.
"Women in India in their everyday life are almost in a war-like situation. Keeping chili spray as a defense mechanism reflects the gravity of the situation. Such epidemic of sexual violence by the male power on women alarms us to the last resort of such self-defense," said Biswas.
Rights activist Shabnam Hashmi said it was shameful for India that it failed to provide security to women.
"In the absence of conditions where women feel safe and are regarded as equal citizens, and they are treated with dignity, they are forced to resort to such measures to repel sexual assault," Hashmi said.
"It is a great shame for any country if its girls have to carry chili spray, as it shows the insecurity of girls or women in that particular society."