By Nita Bhalla and Karla Mendes
NEW DELHI/SAO PAULO, Oct 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Five years after the fatal gang rape of a student on a bus in New Delhi, the Indian capital was on Monday paired with Brazil's Sao Paulo as the world's worst megacities for sexual violence against women in a poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The December 2012 attack of a 23-year-old woman was a watershed in the fight for women's rights in India, the world's largest democracy, prompting thousands to take to the streets demanding action against rising sex attacks.
The public outcry not only forced authorities to strengthen gender laws, establish speedy courts for rape and set up a fund for rape victims, but also opened up the conversation on sexual violence in the largely conservative, patriarchal nation.
However Delhi - a metropolis of more than 26 million people - remains known as India's "rape capital".
And alongside Sao Paulo, it came joint bottom in the survey when experts on women's issues were polled about the risk women run of encountering sexual violence in 19 different megacities.
"I'm not surprised by the results as they're based on perceptions. India and Brazil have seen a lot of media attention on sexual violence in recent years," said Rebecca Reichmann Tavares, head of U.N. Women in India who also worked in Brazil.
"Sexual violence in both these cities is, of course, a reality, but there isn't any definitive data to suggest that rates are higher in Delhi and Sao Paulo than any other city."
The survey asked 380 experts in cities with populations of more than 10 million to assess the risk of sexual violence and harmful cultural practices to women, as well as rank women's access to health care and economic opportunities.
The Egyptian capital Cairo was rated the most dangerous city for women overall and rated third worst for sexual violence, followed by Mexico city and Dhaka. Tokyo was seen as the safest city for women in terms of sexual violence.
Public awareness on sex attacks in Delhi has surged since the Delhi bus attack and thrown a global spotlight on gender violence in the world's second most populous nation.
Indian newspapers offer a daily array of sex crimes. Girls molested in school, professional women raped by taxi drivers while commuting home, village teens duped, trafficked and sold to brothels in the red-light districts of cities.
Brazilians are fed a similar diet, with multiple reports of assaults on women and girls in Sao Paulo - Brazil's most populous city with 21 million people, according to U.N. figures.
In September, thousands of Brazilian women took to social media to demand better support and access to justice after a series of sex attacks on buses where the accused were released due to a lack of evidence.
In one case, the released man was re-arrested two days later after he was accused of attacking another woman on a bus.
"I do not believe in the system. If I file a police report, I'm afraid the accused will come after me," said Clara Averbuck, a writer who was assaulted by a taxi driver and started an online campaign - #MyAbuserDriver - that went viral.
CHECKPOINTS, SAFETY APPS
In India, authorities have been forced to act.
This includes stricter punishments for gender crimes, a 24-hour women's helpline and fast-track courts for rape cases as well as a fund to finance crisis centres for victims.
Women's desks in many of the city's police stations have been established, thousands of police received gender sensitisation classes, and there is increased patrolling, surveillance and more checkpoints across Delhi at night.
Companies, charities, students and even individuals have also launched countless initiatives - from smart phone safety apps and gender lessons for taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers to women's self-defence classes and female cab services.
Voracious media reporting on sex crimes in both countries has helped break the silence, shame and fear of rape, but reports of sex crimes continue to rise.
There were 2,155 rapes recorded in Delhi in 2016 - a rise of 67 percent from 2012, according to police data.
Sao Paulo had 2,287 rapes reported in July this year compared to 2,868 in all 2016, according to government figures, but Brazilian think-tank, the Institute of Applied Economic Research, estimates only 10 percent of rape cases are reported.
Gislaine Caresia, coordinator of policies for women at Sao Paulo's city hall, said authorities were looking for private partners to implement a project to track violence against women which could help indicate how to target the crime.
"Everyone has this perception that domestic and family violence has increased but we do not have specific data of it," Caresia told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In a slum in Delhi's outskirts, auto-rickshaw driver Suresh sits on a bed in a one-roomed concrete house, telling how his teenage sister was dragged to a nearby wasteland and raped by a neighbour as she walked home from college in March.
"This city is unsafe. We know it is, but what am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to lock her up?," he said. "We see the stories every day in the news. Nothing has changed since the Delhi gang rape. Nothing."
Authorities attribute the surge in numbers to more victims reporting crimes, rather than more sexual violence occurring.
Activists say it is probably a combination of both.
Campaigners said sex attacks were often not reported due the "dishonour" associated with rape, as well as a lack of faith in a male-dominated, often insensitive police and judicial system.
"For too long, the perpetrators have acted with a sense of impunity. Certainty of punishment is the best deterrent," said Rishi Kant, a supreme court lawyer and activist from Shakti Vahini, a Delhi-based charity that supports victims.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla and Karla Mendes. Writing by Nita Bhalla. Editing by Belinda Goldsmith and Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)