By Harmeet Shah Singh and Mallika Kapur, CNN
NEW DELHI (CNN) — Bhavyaa Sharma feels vulnerable in the Indian capital.
The 19-year-old student at a leading women’s college in New Delhi fears for her safety when she leaves the campus. Sexual assaults on women in the city have horrified her and her female friends.
On Sunday, a 23-year-old woman was gang-raped and beaten to near death on a moving bus in New Delhi, police say. She is in intensive care at a city hospital, battling for her life.
The attack sparked furious protests across India, where official data show that rape cases have jumped almost 875% over the past 40 years — from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011.
New Delhi alone reported 572 rapes last year and more than 600 in 2012.
“I feel vulnerable here,” said Sharma, accompanied by her classmates. “I am very sure about it. Delhi is not safe for women.”
Sharma is from Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh state. She joined Miranda House, a women’s residential college in New Delhi, in 2010. She’s now close to graduation.
But her stay in the Indian capital hasn’t been without a bitter experience. She says she was groped while commuting in a bus in this city.
“It wasn’t traumatic. But I cannot forget it, either. Definitely, I cannot forget it,” Sharma said.
She called her parents back home that day, who tried to comfort her. Still, she couldn’t hold back her tears. “I cried the entire night,” she said.
Her hostel colleagues shared their own encounters with unwanted behaviors on the streets of New Delhi.
In her first year of college, a group of men stalked Shweta Prakash, 20, and her friends every night they would leave their apartment for dinner.
“It actually freaks you out when people do such things to you … eye-teasing, passing lewd comments and stalking you. They literally rape you with their eyes,” she said.
Now, she keeps pepper spray and has enrolled in self-defense taekwondo programs.
Prakash and her friends hold each others’ hands while walking and text license plate numbers and their location to their parents and others when they travel in a cab or a slow-moving auto-rickshaw.
As young girls, elders, too, faced similar attitudes, which they say only worsened as the city and the country grew.
“I can speak about my own experience, as a student, in this city — people are pinching you, touching you, someone is coming close to you. This is absolutely the mentality where you look at a woman as an object of sex and (which) you use and abuse,” rights activist Ranjana Kumari said.
As furor about Sunday’s assault rose, some Indian lawmakers even called for treating rape as a capital crime.
The country’s human rights body shot off notices to city police and federal authorities, demanding an explanation of the latest sexual assault.
“The incident has raised the issue of declining public confidence in the law and order machinery in the city, especially in its capacity to ensure safety of women, as a number of such incidents have been reported in the national capital in the recent past,” the National Human Rights Commission said in a statement Tuesday.
Five people, including the bus driver and a minor, have been arrested in connection with Sunday’s rape, New Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat said.
Meantime, some observers say anti-women acts in India stem from the country’s largely patriarchal social setup.
Indians’ preference for sons over daughters, for example, has manifested itself in a worrisome population imbalance. The 2011 census of the world’s second-most populous nation recorded an alarming drop in the percentage of girls among country’s preschoolers.
For every 1,000 boys up to 6 years old, the census counted 914 girls, a drop from 927 a decade ago.
It’s illegal in India to abort a child because of its sex, but such abortions happen, often aided by illegal clinics.
“The reasons for the high number of female feticide in India include a deep-rooted traditional son preference, continued practice of dowry and concern for safety of the girl child and exploitation and abuse of women and girl children,” Krishna Tirath, India’s women and child development minister, acknowledged in parliament in March 2011.
A senior legal expert says legislation alone cannot resolve anti-women biases.
“More law will only serve to give a sense of something being done, when in fact very little is being done. To confront the hatred that is now manifesting itself in the most egregious ways is to move forward as a society,” Ratna Kapur, a professor at Jindal Global Law School, wrote in The Hindu newspaper Wednesday.
“We need to think about how we can handle women’s equality in ways that are not perceived as threatening. That demands greater responsibility on the part of parents as well as society not to raise sons in a way in which they are indoctrinated with a sense of superiority and privilege. There is also a need on the part of young men to be actively involved in their schools and communities in advocating women’s equality rights,” she added in her opinion column, headlined “Rape and the crisis of Indian masculinity.”