NEW DELHI — Neha Kaul Mehra says she was only 7 years old the first time she was sexually harassed. She was walking to a dance class in an affluent neighborhood of New Delhi when a man confronted her and began openly masturbating.
That episode was far from the last. Years of verbal and physical sexual affronts left Mehra, now 29, filled with what she described as "impotent rage."
Last week, she and thousands of Indian women like her poured that anger into public demonstrations, reacting to news of the gang rape of another young woman who had moved to the city from a small village.
That woman, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, died Saturday from internal injuries inflicted with a metal rod during the rape on a bus two weeks ago.
In her story and its brutal ending, many women in the world's largest democracy say they see themselves. "That girl could have been any one of us," said Sangeetha Saini, 44, of Delhi. Women in India "face harassment in public spaces, streets, on buses," she said. "We can only tackle this by becoming Durga," she added, referring to the female Hindu god who slays a demon.
Indian women have made impressive gains in recent years: maternal mortality rates have dropped, literacy rates and education levels have risen, and millions of women have joined the professional classes. But the women at the heart of the protest movement say it was born of their outraged realization that no matter how accomplished they become, or how hard they work, women here will never fully take part in a new and more prosperous India without fundamental cultural changes.
Indeed, many women in India say they are still subject to regular harassment and assault during the day and are fearful of leaving their homes alone after dark. Now they are demanding that the government, and a police force that they say offers women little or no protection, do something about it.
Ankita Cheerakathil, 20, a student at St. Stephen's College who attended a protest on Thursday, remembered dreading the daily bus ride when she was in high school in the southern state of Kerala.
At the bus stop, men would zero in on the schoolgirls in their uniforms, some as young as 10, to leer and make cracks filled with sexual innuendo.
"This is not an isolated incident," Cheerakathil said of the death of the New Delhi rape victim. "This is the story of every Indian woman."
While the Dec. 16 attack was extreme in its savagery, gang rapes of women have been happening with frightening regularity in recent months, particularly in northern India. Critics say the response from a mostly male police force is often inadequate at best.
Last week, an 18-year-old woman in Punjab State committed suicide by drinking poison after being raped by two men and then humiliated by male police officers, who made her describe her attack in detail several times, then tried to encourage her to marry one of her rapists.
Dozens more gang rapes have been reported in the states of Haryana, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in recent months.
The government does not keep statistics on gang rape, but over all, rapes increased 25 percent from 2006 to 2011. Over 600 rapes were reported in New Delhi in 2012. Only one has resulted in a conviction.
Sociologists and crime experts say the attacks are the result of deeply entrenched misogynistic attitudes and the rising visibility of women, underpinned by long-term demographic trends.
After years of aborting female fetuses, a practice still on the rise in some areas because of a cultural preference for male children, India has about 15 million "extra" men ages 15 to 35, the range when men are most likely to commit crimes. By 2020, there will be 30 million of them.
"There is a strong correlation between masculinized sex ratios and higher rates of violent crime against women," said Valerie M. Hudson, a co-author of Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population. Single men often gather in packs, Hudson argues, and then commit more gruesome and violent crimes than they would on their own.
Others point to the gains that women have made as triggers for an increase in violent crimes. "Women are rising in society and fighting for equal space, and these crimes are almost like a backlash," said Vijay Raghavan, chairman of the Center for Criminology and Justice at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.
Beyond that, in India's conservative society, male sexual aggression is portrayed in unexpected ways. In Bollywood films, kissing is rare and nudity forbidden. But the rape scene is a movie staple.
But this latest incident created a powerful push-back against the status quo.
On Monday, protesters and politicians continued to call for tougher rape laws, major police reforms and a transformation in the way the nation treats women.
Out of respect for the unnamed rape victim, India's army and navy canceled their New Year's celebrations, as did Sonia Gandhi, head of the ruling Congress party. Hotels and clubs across the capital also said they would forego their usual parties.
Hundreds of mourners continue daily protests near Parliament demanding swift action.
"So much needs to be done to end the oppression of women," said Murarinath Kushwaha.