NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A new comic about a rape survivor who becomes a "superhero" to fight sex crimes aims to spread the message of gender equality by targeting India's tech-savvy teens with the help of an interactive app which brings its characters to life.
"Priya's Shakti" is the first Indian comic book of its kind - not only confronting teenagers with the sensitive issue of sexual violence, but also engaging young people through its innovative use of augmented reality technology.
Inspired by ancient Hindu mythology, the comic tells the story of Priya, a young rural woman who is gang-raped and consequently shamed and shunned by her family and community.
After praying to the Goddess Parvati, Priya gains the strength, or "shakti", to stand up to those who persecute her, and flies around India on a tiger, helping other victims gain justice in a society where women are often blamed for the abuse they have undergone.
"We live in a culture which prevents women from pursuing justice and that's what the comic book is about," said U.S.-based film-maker Ram Devineni, one of the comic's creators.
"Our main character, Priya, is a rape survivor who takes up the challenge of addressing sexual violence in India. Eventually it is up to her to find her 'shakti' and take it back to her community and motivate others to combat patriarchy."
Indian girls and women face numerous threats - from female foeticide, child marriage and dowry killings to sexual and physical assault, experts say, largely because of the age-old patriarchal attitude that women are inferior to men.
There were 309,546 reports of crimes against women in India in 2013, a 26.7 percent jump from 2012, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. These included rape, kidnapping, sexual harassment, trafficking, molestation and cruelty by husbands and relatives.
Research shows increasingly that adult attitudes and behaviour are shaped by childhood experiences, and Devineni worked with artist Dan Goldman and the anti-trafficking charity Apne Aap Women Worldwide to challenge sexism in the minds of the young.
"Of course, we need better laws to punish those who rape and buy and sell women, but we also need to get into the consciousness of young men and young women to make them think differently," said Ruchira Gupta, Apne Aap's president.
"The message for girls is to stand up to sexual violence and the message for boys is not to dominate, but to have sex with equality and participation. We want to eroticise equality rather than eroticise domination, which is what many superhero comics do."
Gupta said they planned to distribute the first edition of the comic free in schools and to make it available in English, Hindi and other regional languages such as Marathi. It is also available free online.
While creators say the social messaging is one of the most unique things about "Priya's Shakti", what makes it more appealing is that readers with access to a smartphone can use the augmented reality APP Blippar to scan the comic's pages and bring animation, videos, real-life stories and other interactive elements to life.
"It's part of a wider engagement - basically aimed at teenagers and for teenagers, who totally get this. They see this technology and they eat it up," said Devineni.
"We know that if it can work with teenagers, who represent up to 30 percent of India's population, and the message can seep into their minds, then we think in the long term things could change."
Reporting by Nita Bhalla; Editing by Tim Pearce