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20 May, 2010 05:38

Women forced to take justice in their hands in rural India

One in three women in India is reportedly a victim of domestic violence. Few of their cases make it to court and those that do experience long and costly cases.

But in the north of the country, a group of women are taking the law into their own hands.

They may wear pink saris, but this is not a fashion statement – they wear pink as a symbol of their cause. These vigilante women go after corrupt officials and violent husbands with sticks. Numbering over 100,000 in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, they proudly call themselves the Gulabi Gang or ‘pink gang’.

Their leader is 48-year-old Sampat Pal, who first decided to act when she witnessed domestic violence.

“My neighbor was a young girl who had been married very early. Her husband used to beat her, so I argued with him,” remembers gang Leader Sampat Gulabi Pal. “He threatened me, so I came back with five women and we beat him up. Since then, this movement has taken off. Whenever a woman is beaten or harassed, she comes to me.”

Banda is one of the poorest districts in Uttar Pradesh. Women bear the brunt of discrimination here – dowry demands and domestic violence are common.

“For the last month, my brother-in-law has been hitting me with a stick. He hit my son so badly that he started bleeding,” said Siya Rani, who has come to Sampat for help after being beaten in her own home. She explained that she “approached the police but they didn’t help.”

“When women are harassed, instead of letting them waste years in courts looking for justice, we go to the village and try to arrange a settlement,” states Gulabi Gang leader Sampat Pal. “After all, men and women are two wheels of the same vehicle.”

Although most of the gang's actions are on behalf of women, they are increasingly called upon by men. When local farmers decided to take to the streets to demand compensation for failed crops, they asked the Gulabi Gang to be there.

“The Gulabi Gang takes up the cause of anybody who faces injustice, whether they are poor or rich,” shared supporter Ashok Srivastava. “It may take money and time, but these women fight against injustice and raise their voices for the innocent.”

But Sampat herself is in danger of being criminalized. Following complaints by the police, she is waiting to hear if she will be formally charged with rioting and attacking government employees.

“The police tell us, ‘Don’t take the law in your own hands.’ So I tell them, ‘We have no option. When we have no faith in the police, we have to protect ourselves.’” Sampat Pal argues.

In rural India, with the administration often corrupt and failing to deliver, and with women still amongst the most oppressed, it was only a matter of time before movements such as Gulabi Gang became popular.