By Dr Cesar Chelala
In Bundelkhand, one of the poorest areas of the Uttar Pradesh region in Northern India, a 48-year-old woman is breaking stereotypes, and giving woman a chance to fight for their rights, and even for their survival. This is no small feat in a country plagued by discrimination against women and by inequality.
In 2006, Sampat Pal Devi, who had been married at the age of 12 to an ice-cream vendor and had her first child when she was 15, created a group of women vigilantes that numbers over 20,000, and now has even some men as its supporters. The movement is called Gulabi Gang (pink gang), after the pink-coloured saris used by the members. Another characteristic is the use of lathis (Indian fighting sticks,) which they use to punish miscreants.
In an interview with Sanjit Das, an Indian photographer and social activist, Sampat Pat Devi explained, “The word ‘gang’ doesn’t necessarily denote criminals. It can also be used to describe a team, a crew. We are a gang for justice. In rallies and protests outside our villages, especially in crowded cities, our members used to get lost in the rush. We decided to dress in a single colour, which would be easy to identify. We didn’t want to be associated with other colours, as they had associations with political or religious groups. We settled on pink, the colour of life. It’s good. It makes the administration wary of us.”
Initially, the movement was created to help women victims of domestic abuse, but now includes all problems of inequality and abuse of women. According to the United Nations, two in three married Indian women are victims of domestic violence. Aside from domestic violence several other problems plague women in modern Indian society such as honour killings, child marriages, and the burden of dowries.
Although gender-based discrimination against female children is widespread in developing countries, India is one of the worst culprits. Discrimination against women, which starts in the womb, continues throughout women’s lives. In this regard, female feticide is one of the earliest and most brutal manifestations of violence against women.
Although some kinds of abuse of women, such as “bride burning”, have diminished among educated urban populations, many cases of dowry-related domestic violence, suicides and murders still occur. According to the Thomas Reuters Foundation, India is the fourth most dangerous place in the world for women.
Most of the members of the Gulabi Gang are poor and from India’s lowest caste, the dalit (untouchables). Sampat Pat Devi has assumed the role commander in chief of the organization, and has appointed seven additional commanders in seven districts in Bundelkhand to help coordinate the group’s activities.
A long list of criminal charges doesn’t deter her. They include unlawful assembly, attacking a government official, and obstructing the work of an officer in duty. At times, she has had to go into hiding to protect herself. Her work, however, has inspired countless young and older women who join the group in increasing numbers.
One of the group’s earliest accomplishments happened in 2006, soon after the movement’s creation. When Sampat Pat Devi heard the cries of a woman being beaten by her husband, she pleaded with the man to stop. Rather than stopping, the man also beat her. So Sampat Pat Devi, together with other five women, beat the man when their lathis until he begged for mercy. Soon afterwards, on hearing what had happened, many other women from her village joined the movement.
In the following years, the Gulabi Gang stopped several child marriages; forced police officers to register cases of domestic violence and organised protests against abusive dowries. As a result of their activities, their fame spread beyond their village and the Gulabi Gang has now established operations in Banda, Meerut, Bjnor and several other places across Northern India.
In 2008, members of the group ambushed the local electricity office which was withholding electricity until the company’s main officers received kickbacks or sexual favours. Holding their lathis, they ambushed the local electricity office and electric power was restored an hour later.
Although most of the Gang members’ actions are on behalf of women, they are increasingly joined by men in their protests. For example, 7,000 Banda men farmers asked the group to join them in their demands for compensation for failed crops. However, members of the gang are much less frequently using their lathis. As Sampat Pat Devi told the Hindustan Times, “My real strength is not in the stick. It is in numbers. And one day we will be big enough to shake up Delhi, too.”
Dr. Cesar Chelala is a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.