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The first JRS Delhi tailoring class for Chin refugee women on the outskirts of the city. Nineteen women graduated after seven months. (Molly Mullen/JRS)

Delhi, 19 April 2013 – Most women don't want to talk about it. After all, there is nothing to talk about. "Yes, men touch us." "Men grab us when we walk to the market." "Men tell us we owe them our bodies for coming to their country." 

For single women in New Delhi's Chin community, harassment is part of their daily life in India. Without language skills, resources, knowledge of their rights or legal status, the women have few outlets to report cases.

There are 20,000 refugees in the city, including 12,000 from Chin State, the poorest region in Burma, just across the border with India. The mainly Christian Chin people, one of Burma's ethnic minorities, have long endured persecution at the hands of the Burmese military. Chin asylum seekers speak of forced labour and conscription, rape, arbitrary arrest, torture, killings and other abuses. 

JRS began working in the Chin community in 2011, offering tailoring training to women, many of who are single. Some make around 2,800 rupees (about 40 euro) per month in tailoring factories, and JRS hopes they can earn a living doing the same work at home with new sewing machines and skills.

It's not only about income-generation; there is a safety issue here. Without enough money to go to the market, most women in this community forage for food after midnight, when the outdoor markets have closed and unwanted vegetables have been discarded. Some go in groups for protection but it doesn't always help.

"Delhi is not safe for women. Local teens brush against us and harass us in little ways. People steal from us. I need to go to the market to get discarded vegetables after 11 pm, but I know I'm risking getting harassed," said Elizabeth*, a single mother who now earns money knitting baby's clothes on a machine rented from an NGO.

Sexual harassment and assault are terribly pervasive in India. The mass protests following the highly publicized December gang rape and murder of an unnamed 23-year-old Delhi girl drew attention to the lack of police protection and their apathy and insensitivity towards such crimes. 

Due to the public outcry, legislation was enacted to reinstate India's fast-track court for alleged rapists and to make punishments harsher. But with so few women reporting sex crimes, most perpetrators will never be brought to court. Still, reports of rape have increased from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011. In 2012, 600 rapes were reported in Delhi alone. There are no statistics on sexual violence against refugee women in India.

"This is an issue that affects every woman in Delhi," said Rini, a volunteer with Burmese Women's Development (BWD), a community-based organisation run by refugees.  

"Indian women get groped all the time. I'm Indian, so at least I can talk back to the guy or go to the police. But refugee women can't talk to the police. If they do, the police don't listen and they feel more marginalised."

In a 2012 investigation of 30 police officers, who are the first point of contact for a rape victim, 17 blamed the girl. "Girls from Darjeeling and Nepal have come here for business purposes. They go with men for money. Later, when the money is not sufficient, it becomes a rape," said Try Rajpal Yadav, a senior house officer, in the hidden camera investigation.

It's no wonder that the staff of BWD, with whom JRS collaborated to start the tailoring courses, say they hear more about sexual abuse in their neighbourhood on the outskirts of Delhi than the police.

Sawmte, BWD finance officer, said there are only so many times a single woman can ask male friends to accompany her to the market. Chheri, violence against women coordinator, said it's better if men don't come. "If a man tried to defend us, it just gets more local men to join in and causes more violence," Chheri said.

Margaret* fled Chin State when she was 17, crossing the border to India's Mizoram State. She came to New Delhi because it is the only city in India where asylum seekers who are not living in established camps can register with UNHCR and receive some semblance of legal protection. Now 21, she says Delhi is too dangerous and she wants to return to Mizoram with her friend and work on a farm until it is safe to return to Burma. They will earn substantially less money but they say they will have a safe community and know their neighbours.

"I truly thought it would be safer here than in Burma. Now I don't know," Margaret said. 

Molly Mullen, JRS International communications consultant

*Not her real name

This article appeared in the March 2013 issue of Servir. To read the whole issue, please click here