The nooses around their necks had been fashioned from their own brightly colored saris. The female cousins, ages 12 and 14, had been missing since they went to use the bathroom in a sugarcane field across from their village hut in Northern India the night before. They had been abducted, raped, and lynched by three brothers from a higher caste, and on the morning of May 28, their family discovered them hanging from a mango tree.
The chilling spectacle revived international concern about the rampant sexual violence that continues to plague India’s women on a daily basis, but it was also a reminder that little has changed in the year and half since the fatal gang rape of a medical student on a Delhi bus sparked demands for reform. At the time, 23-year-old Texan Kuro Tawil happened to be in India on a “stereotypical journey to find himself” after graduating from Texas State. He remembers watching women protest in a silent demonstration, and growing determined to do something to help. “I realized the protests were doing no good,” he says. “They needed a way to fight back, so I decided to start arming them.”
In 2013, Tawil started Kuros!, a company that donates pepper spray to women in India who can’t afford it. The non-lethal, compact weapon-of-choice typically costs around $10 per can in India, which is a fortune to the average worker, who makes about $2 a day. Using the Warby Parker-style “one for one” business model, Tawil donates a can for every item he sells on his website, which includes wallets handcrafted by Kashmiri refugees in Kathmandu. “This is a short-term solution to a long-term problem,” he says. “We’re taking it one woman at a time.”
According to India’s National Criminal Records Bureau, in 2013 the number of rapes reported across the country doubled from the year before. And in the Northern state of Uttar Pradesh alone, six more brutal assaults have occurred since the teenage girls were found hanging in a village there two weeks ago.
Last week, both the U.S. State Department and the UN voiced their disgust and concern over the incident, which came on the heels of yet another assault—this time of a 35-year-old mother who was shot in the head after resisting being molested by her attackers. “As we have said, changing laws and changing attitudes is hard work,” State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said in response to the attacks, which is also part of the reason Tawil decided to focus on a more practical and immediate solution.
“Fighting fire with fire isn’t always the best option, but these girls are being murdered,” he says.
Though his company is still in its infancy, he has managed to empower close to 500 women with their very own can of military-grade pepper spray so far. Tawil works with local women’s rights groups in India to organize each “Protection Drop,” which is when the women are given their pepper spray and trained how and when to use it. “It’s structured after a concealed weapons class,” Tawil says. “We explain to them that they should try and talk down their attackers first, and that the spray is a last resort.”
For the first round in October of last year, he worked with the Red Brigade in Uttar Pradesh, a women’s rights group that teaches martial arts as a form of self defense. Hundreds of girls ranging from age 14 to 50 showed up to the event in the village of Madiyav, including some who had traveled hundreds of miles by train. The organization was able to arm nearly half the village, and since then not a single rape has been reported. “Before, attackers knew that women weren’t armed so there wasn’t much of a risk,” says Tawil. “But now rapists are forced to wonder whether a woman is armed or not, and then decide if they want to find out.”
This month, a few days after the bodies of the cousins were discovered hanging from a tree, the Red Brigade distributed hundreds of cans from Tawil’s inventory to the girls’ village.
“If you had told me that I would be doing this two years ago when I had just graduated college, I wouldn’t have believed you,” he says. “But now my goal is to arm as many women as I can.”