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THE ladies at the National Alliance of Women smile and offer the sweet milky tea Indians love so much before they talk about their work - campaigning against gang rape, murder and slavery.

Of course there's people trafficking too as well as what's called dowry torture, when women are subjected to vile abuse because their family cannot pay the full dowry after marriage.

These women are often beaten and sometimes murdered so the husband can get a new wife and, of course, a new dowry. Few are ever convicted of any offence linked to dowry torture.

In fact the women of NAWO are at pains to point out convictions for any number of sex attacks against women in India are few and far between.

Their work, backed by Irish aid agency Trocaire, is relentless as is the pressure on them.

They have even been subjected to threatening phonecalls for rocking the boat in a society whose dysfunctional attitude to women has been highlighted by a string of brutal sex attacks, including the gang rape and death of a 23-year-old student in Delhi in December.

This month a Swiss tourist was gangraped in Madhya Pradesh and a sevenyear-old child was raped in Delhi.

Government statistics show a woman is raped every 20 minutes in India, but the country's conviction rate for the crime is one of the lowest in the world.

That an offence of sexual assault is only now about to become law, thanks largely to their campaigning, is an indication of attitudes to abuse of women in India.

Before now there was an offence of rape or simply outraging public decency, a crime dating back to this country's colonial link with Britain.

Lalita Missal, one of the women who has dedicated her life to lifting India's females from a life of sexual repression, is matter-of-fact when she says the old rape charge did not apply to attacks like one she dealt with in which the victim has been violated with an iron bar.

s the brutal reality of their he kind of behaviour This is the brutal reality of their work, the kind of behaviour met not with but silence estions them 's our e e often met not with outrage but silence or questions about the victim's behaviour before the attack.

This is 21st century India where, as Lalita says, women are at best not taken seriously and at worst treated with violent contempt.

They say the Justice Minister will not even meet them as they are women.

At their modest office in downtown Bhubaneswar, Odisha state's main city, she tells how local women experienced horrendous attacks which did not make the international media, like one woman in the city warned she'd be gang-raped if she did not drop a sexual harassment complaint against a judge.

She adds: "This was a very powerful man and she raised her voice so she was raped by seven men. It was made clear it was because of her complaint.

"In another case in Bhubaneswar a girl who witnessed a gang rape and insisted she would give evidence was herself gang-raped and murdered."

In neither case has anyone been brought to justice and this is not unusual.

The reaction to rape in India, Lalita says, is for the victim's integrity to be questioned.

She says: "There is no talk about rape, just about why this girl was out on her own or why she was out late, it's always about the woman's character. That's the attitude we need to break."

Listening to the women from NAWO you quickly realise the stories that have made it past India's shores are only the tip of the iceberg.

Lalita and fellow campaigners believe attacks are often a form of "revenge" on women refusing to adhere to India's demand they be demure and obedient.

mad tip o La atta wom demPa cog Part of their campaigning is going to colleges trying to teach the younger generation that masculinity is not about being violent against women.

But it's not just gang rape that keeps this group busy.

Dowry torture sees wives imprisoned at their in-laws' home where they suffer, at best, verbal abuse but often much worse.

Lalita says: "Women are often killed because their family has failed to pay all the agreed dowry. You will see women burned to death with kerosene because it leaves little evidence.

b all wom bec "I "It will be said the cooker blew up. It means the husband is free to marry again and get another dowry. Like gang rape it's rare anyone is convicted."

Women are also murdered for refusing an offer of marriage by men who see the snub as a sleight.

They are often kidnapped as well and taken off to faraway states where they are forced to marry some man who has decided he wants a particular woman for his wife.

One 16-year-old girl was abducted in Odisha before ending up a virtual sex slave at the home of her so-called husband in Rajasthan at the other side of India and bordering Pakistan.

The women from NAWO, along with the girl's father, eventually rescued her after a battle to get the police interested.

Lalita added: "Her family refused an offer of marriage from this man so his uncle abducted her. When she was found it emerged the uncle had been involved in the trafficking of other young girls."

Trafficking of people for sex and slavery knows no age bounds either.

NAWO, working with other groups, recently rescued a 10-year-old girl sent 1,000 miles from Bhubaneswar to Bangalore to work as a virtual slave cleaning dishes.

The little girl was convinced she would have a good life in a gleaming far-off land and, in a shocking example of reality for India's poor, her starving mother did not object. The woman who sold her the dream had apparently done the same to many young girls. Each time she made a commission, like a modern-day slave trader.

Lalita says: "The only reason we were able to rescue this girl was because her older sister worked for a family in Bhubeneswar and they had a girl who became friendly with her.

"They kind of looked after her and noticed she was not coming any more."

Poor rural dwellers often migrate in search of work but often fall prey to unscrupulous so-called agents.

Lalita adds: "These agents will expect 10% of the worker's pay to get them a job cleaning for example. But they take more for sickness, for accommodation, TV, food, electricity and people end up trapped.

"One woman worked for eight years and at the end of it she had just 2,000 rupees (PS24) left."

TOMORROW we look at how Trocairebacked projects are helping people feed themselves where once they faced constant hunger.

There is no talk about rape, just about why this girl was out late LALITA MISSAL asHer family refused the offer of marriage so the uncle abducted her LAITA MISSAL


UNITY 3The women of NAWO are making a real impact despite facing prejudice

LESSONS J Spreading the word on how women have a right to be treated

INSPIRING 3Lalita Missal is speaking up for women all over India

SISTERS' STAND The women of NAWO are the face of a new India
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Mar 26, 2013
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