In deeply impoverished regions of South Asia, daughters are often seen as burdens while their brothers are considered economic assets. Women and girls are culturally expected to leave their birth homes and join their husbands’ families, where their fiscal and domestic contributions will follow. Consequently, struggling parents forsake the education of their daughters in favor of sons and arrange marriages for child daughters in order to pass on financial responsibility.
The result: women and girls have no agency.
[TRIGGER WARNING: VIOLENCE, RAPE]
With no education that will allow them financial independence or support from their parents, they face the risk of physical and emotional abuse from their new families. Some husbands abandon their wives if the girl’s parents do not pay additional dowries. In a culture where a woman’s well being is derived from her husband and chastity is valued, this is a cruel sentence. Violence against poor women is astoundingly high in all parts of the world.
In the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, India’s poorest state, Gulabi Gang has changed that for over 400,000 women that flood its ranks.
India is the second fastest growing economy in the world. As the country’s wealth expands, the elite produce an increased demand for luxury goods. Highly educated individuals flood the massive tech industry. The services sector is rapidly expanding and provides jobs and amenities to the people of India. Despite these positive markers in India’s growth, the large population of the nation combined with the lack of resources and problems in infrastructure mean that a massive portion of the 1.2 billion Indian residents continue to face extreme poverty. A common narrative follows in which poverty stricken regions face disproportionate gender inequality and prejudice.
The Gulabi Gang challenges the conditions of poverty in a developing nation. The fluorescent pink saris the women of the group wear give them the name “Gulabi Gang,” meaning “Pink Gang.” Sampat Pal Devi formed the organization in 2006 in Uttar Pradesh. Female illiteracy, rigid caste divisions, child labor, child marriages, female infanticide, and dowry demands are not cultural norms, yet they are part of the climate that fosters violence against women. Though the group was not officially formed until much later, Devi’s first steps towards fighting violence against women began in the 1980s. A neighbor was beating his wife. Devi gathered a small group of women who thrashed the man until he publically apologized.
As such, the Gang’s initial focus was on domestic abuse, dowry demands, and abandonment by husbands, but now has greatly expanded its attention. The group seeks to use dialogue, hunger strikes, and rallies to fight corruption, crime, oppression, and violence. But when their efforts go unnoticed, they resort to wielding bamboo lathis (sticks) and publically shaming their enemies. Women, who are thrown out by their husbands unless their natal families pay additional dowries, come to Gulabi Gang in hopes of receiving assistance.
In one instance, Devi assured a young wife that the group would demand an explanation from her husband and said, “If they don’t take her back and keep her well, we will resort to other measures.” It is clear the group’s focus is not on freeing women from difficult circumstances. Reconciliation is deemed preferable when possible. In a deeply patriarchal society, it is common to claim that ‘women need men to live.’
The Gang also targets abusers. “We fight rapists with lathis. If we find the culprit we trash him black and blue so he dare not attempt to do wrong to any girl or a women again,” says Devi.
Though their use of violence is brutal, the Gulabi Gang resorts to necessary methods to defend victims in a region where police and officials work in favor of the rich and disregard the poor. Because of such corruption, the group rejects donations from political parties and NGO’s knowing that they will have to provide associated kickbacks. When electricity was turned off in an attempt to extort bribes, they stormed a government office demanding it be restored. Gulabi Gang also ensured grain distribution to poor when corruption halted it.
Though the Gang appears to have a distaste for authority, Devi says, “We cannot sit quiet by just blaming the government alone. The society is also equally responsible for any such incident. Before we launched Gulabi Gang, there were at least 30 rapes reported a month in Uttar Pradesh. However, the number has been reduced drastically by the mass movement through society’s involvement.”
The group’s anti-corruption stance is evident, which is why Sampat Pal Devi was ousted in March of this year when suspected of financial irregularities and dictatorial rule. Among many claims, she reportedly demanded payment from a member who asked for help confronting abusive in-laws, made decisions without consultation, and put personal gain ahead of group welfare. Devi has dismissed all accusations and appears to still be active in the group. In August she stated that her group is “apolitical and free from corruption.” She also hopes to expand the Gulabi Gang’s reach to Karnataka.
Despite recent misgivings, the Gulabi Gang continues to capture attention and has been the subject of multiple books, two documentaries, and a Bollywood film adding to the group’s fame. In the award-winning documentary Gulabi Gang, filmmaker Nishita Jain captures Devi (prior to her ousting) persuading a police officer to register a criminal case of a 15-year-old girl reportedly burned to death by her in-laws. It was later found that her husband killed her. It is unclear why the murder was not initially investigated.
Jain says, “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.” The overwhelming patriarchy of Uttar Pradesh has shaped an opposing group that represents exactly what it hopes to quell: women with power.
Audre Lorde famously wrote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”
The Gulabi Gang has taken the tools of violence and fear from their oppressors and used it against them. As we battle for women’s welfare across the globe, we must recognize that the systems we work within are vastly different based on our geographical locations, cultures, religions, socioeconomic classes, races, and sexualities. The Gulabi Gang operates through methods tailored to their environment.
But can the Gulabi Gang create lasting change with violence and fear?
After tormenting myself with this question for days, I have come to this conclusion: The relief Gulabi Gang has provided for suffering women is undeniable, but the deeply ingrained patriarchal culture of Uttar Pradesh persists. Without the women in pink policing the streets and striking fear in their enemies, abuse, rape, corruption, and crime would resume. To truly eradicate gender inequality, girls must be empowered through education, legislation protecting women must be enforced, and opportunities that allow intellectual curiosity and achievements to thrive should be set.
India has begun passing legislation that will allow education and gender equality to become a reality. The Domestic Violence Act of 2005 gives victims the opportunity to have their abusers prosecuted. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act of 2012 and the Criminal Law Act of 2013 protect women and children from sexual violence. Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009 makes education a fundamental right of children between ages 6 and 14. But there continues to be a disconnect between law and practice in India. For example, the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1978 dictates that the minimum age for marriage is 21 and 18 for men and women, respectively. However, according to a 2012 U.N. report 47% of women marry younger than 18.
This statistics show that the cultural climate of India is deeply patriarchal and legislation alone cannot alter it. As India expands, it has the perfect opportunity to fund better quality education for all children, provide opportunities in rapidly growing industries, and remove gender violence through continually improved legislation. Steadily, the cycles of poverty, violence, and discrimination can be broken.
As global leaders, the U.N., and other organizations seek to provide an education to every child, we too must become advocates for change. While the gang’s use of force against abusers may not be sustainable model to produce lasting change, it has protected thousands from harm when the other methods fail to do so.