The Banda District of Uttar Pradesh in Northern India is marked by a deeply patriarchal culture, rife with domestic violence, child marriages and dowry demands. According to government statistics, a woman is abducted every 10 minutes and one is raped every 20 minutes in India.
Bundelkhand is one of India’s most impoverished regions; more than 40% of the population is living below the poverty line. In addition to poverty, the citizens are trapped in the unending cycles of hardship, drought and illiteracy. Female illiteracy is rife, and infanticide, child marriages and domestic violence is rampant. According to a government survey in 2005 and 2006, 51% of men and 55% of women believed that domestic violence was justified in certain circumstances. 2
The discrimination against girls in India starts even before birth. Even in the most impoverished areas in India, there are people that earn a living by going door to door with an ultrasound machine to determine the gender of the fetus. In some instances, a woman will abort a baby simply because she is female. The world average of boys born to girls born is 106 to 100. However, in India, it is 112 to 100. It has been estimated that in the past thirty years, India has lost 12 million girls to feticide.3
Utter Pradesh is one of the most unsafe providences for women in the country. In 2013 alone, there were 1,963 reported cases of rape, 7,910 cases of kidnapping and 2,244 cases of dowry death. Quite often, rapes in India go unreported because many women are disenchanted with the government and police force. “The justice system in Bundelkhand is dysfunctional and unreliable,” says journalist and author of Pink Saree Revolution, Amana Fontanella Khan.
As a result of this evident misogyny and lack of action from the authorities, Sampat Pal Devi developed the “Gulabi Gang.” They work together for justice for oppressed and abused women. They wear bright pink saris and carry lathis, which is a traditional stick used for sparring. They use these lathis as a weapon if necessary. “I don’t advocate violence, but there are times when that is the only way to fight. These are people for whom words and arguments are not enough,” Devi said.
Devi first learned how to properly use a lathi in the 1980s when she used it to defend her neighbour against her abusive husband. Following the ordeal, the husband apparently changed his ways and stopped abusing his wife. “Yes, we fight rapists with lathis. If we find the culprit, we thrash him black and blue so he dare not attempt to do wrong to any girl or a woman again,” she said.4
Then in 2002, Devi spotted a man beating a woman in the street. She intervened but she too was beaten. The next day, she gathered five local women and together, they all beat up the man who had attacked her. She never looked back and shortly thereafter, she conjured up the Gulabi Gang.
Devi empathises with the women she protects all too well. When she was just 12-years-old, she was forced to marry a 25-year-old man. At 15-years-old, she gave birth to the first of her five children.
The Gulabi Gang have beaten up accused rapists, wife beaters and have stopped black marketers from stealing from a food bank. While some of the women in the Gulabi Gang only earn 75 cents a day, they say that they now feel empowered. Since their implementation, more girls go to school and the number of rapes in the area is down. Bright pink saris are being sold out in shops across the area as local women are wearing them in support of the gang.
Today, the Gulabi Gang is a network of around 400,000 women, across districts of India’s largest province of Uttar Pradesh. Those who join are registered, given an ID card and wear a bright pink sari. For 500 rupee, they are given a lathi.
When asked what her goals with the Gulabi Gang were, Devi said: “Eradicating child marriage and the dowry tradition, acting firmly against domestic violence and promoting the empowerment of women through education and social awareness. Many argue that those are rights already protected by our constitution, but the problem doesn’t lie with the law, which is good, but with its implementation. We live in a violent patriarchy that permeates all institutions, especially the police and politicians at the highest level. If we women don’t save ourselves, nobody will.”
Their vigilantism has even won the recognition of the state authorities. “The Gulabi Gang has created such a force of women’s rights and awakening that it has brought a new desire to fight against women’s exploitation,” acknowledges Arvind Sen, the superintendent of police of Banda district.
In 2014, a documentary was released in India to celebrate the Gulabi Gang. In it, Devi presses the local police to seek justice for a 15-year-old girl who was reportedly burnt to death by her in-laws. However, later on the documentary it is revealed that the girl was actually killed by her husband, who had been having an affair. The documentary was created by Nishita Jain, who had been inspired by the Gulabi Gang. “It is ironic that in one of India’s most backward regions, women are forced to become ‘masculine’ and aggressive in their fight against machismo and patriarchy,” she said.
While in western media, Devi is considered a hero, she’s still a controversial figure in India. Some celebrate her efforts but others consider her an outlaw. “Society will only change if we eliminate the inherently subordinate role given to women. This is a revolution that has to come from us. Therefore, besides having established self-help and legal counselling groups to address individual cases, we focus on programs to achieve their emancipation. From savings funds to events with companies where women can be hired,” she said.
- St. Cloud Times, 12 February, 2009 – “Pink if the Color of Empowerment” 1 Aljazeera.com, 4 March, 2014 – “Gulabi Gang: India’s Women Warriors”
- Post Magazine – “Meet the Gulabi Gang”
- The Irish Times, 6 January, 2014 – “Pink Power on Parade with the Gulabi Gang”