Narendra Modi said India had been shamed by a recent spate of rapes, as he made his first Independence Day speech as prime minister.
He called on parents to take responsibility for their sons' actions, saying parents must teach their sons the difference between right and wrong.
Modi also pledged bank accounts for all and toilets in every school.
The capital has been under a blanket of security, with thousands of police and soldiers deployed across the city.
Modi, who led his party to victory in this summer's general election, addressed the nation from the 17th Century Red Fort in Delhi.
He did not read from a prepared text and for the first time in many years the prime minister did not stand behind a bullet-proof screen.
Greetings to my fellow Indians on Independence Day! May our Tricolour fly high & our nation scale new heights of development. Jai Hind.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) August 15, 2014
Unlike previous leaders, he did make any grand announcements or criticise arch-rival Pakistan.
Instead, Modi spoke about how growing sex crimes against women had left him ashamed and asked Indians to stop discriminating against female children.
Scrutiny of sexual violence and rapes in India has been high ever since a 23-year-old student was gang-raped on a bus in Delhi in December 2012.
The outcry over the crime forced India to introduce tough new laws, but there have since been more high-profile assaults, including a number of attacks on foreign tourists.
"When we hear about these rapes our heads hang in shame," Modi said.
"Young girls are always asked so many questions by their parents, like 'where are you going?'. But do parents dare to ask their sons where they are going?" he asked.
"Those who commit rape are also someone's sons. It's the responsibility of the parents to stop them before they take the wrong path," he added.
— Hindustan Times (@htTweets) August 15, 2014
The prime minister asked MPs and business leaders to help build toilets, especially for women, and model villages.
Modi also talked about turning India into a manufacturing hub and moving from an import-based economy to an export-driven one.
He pledged bank accounts for all in a country where nearly 40 percent of people have little access to financial services and are often at the mercy of moneylenders who charge extortionate interest.