Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Long Live the Gulabi Gang!

“Village society in India is loaded against women. It refuses to educate them, marries them off too early, barters them for money. Village women need to study and become independent to sort it out themselves,” says Sampat Devi in this BBC article.

Sampat Devi is the leader of the Gulabi Gang (Pink Gang), a group of women in rural India who strive for social justice. They don pink saris and fight for women’s rights, against corruption, and for the poor. Sampat Devi began the vigilante group in 2006, and chose the color pink for her gang’s uniform because most other colors are used to represent political parties. Several political parties have offered to fund the Gulabi Gang, but Sampat refuses their help because she believes they are always looking for kickbacks.

Sampat Devi mostly works with the “Untouchables”, also known as Dalits. In the caste system of India, these people are the poorest of the poor. They are usually unemployed, or have to work at the types of jobs that no one else will. They have long existed on the margins of society, and get little support from their communities. When Sampat began working with Dalit women, her friends and family shunned her. But Sampat says, “I never believed in a caste system… Those poor people who serve others? For me, they are gods.”

The UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination condemned caste-based discrimination in 2002, but not much has been done to enforce the resolution.* According to a National Geographic article, female “Untouchables” are frequent victims of violence and sexual assault. The article explains:
“A report released by Amnesty International in 2001 found an "extremely high" number of sexual assaults on Dalit women, frequently perpetrated by landlords, upper-caste villagers, and police officers. The study estimates that only about 5 percent of attacks are registered, and that police officers dismissed at least 30 percent of rape complaints as false.”

Sampat has helped to empower the Dalit women. She teaches them to use the lathi, a traditional Indian self-defense weapon. They have beaten up men who abuse their wives and corrupt officials. Sampat says, “We beat people to protect ourselves. Now they’re scared of us, so we don’t have to use lathis. We just keep them in our hands, and when we need to, we use them”.

It’s easy to frown upon the use of violence and concede that it is wrong. But we come from a very different world. The Dalit women are entrenched in a feudalistic, male-centered society where they are treated as slaves, and suffer in extreme poverty. If they want to take justice into their own hands in the form of lathi, frankly, I celebrate them. And I am a pacifist at heart.

Sampat Devi has made amazing progress on behalf of the Dalits. She exposed a scandal involving grain rations- in her part of the country, villages were supposed to receive a specified amount of grain, but corrupt officials were selling some of it on the black market. Sampat and the Gulabi Gang hi-jacked a truck carrying the grain and made sure the grain was distributed properly.

According to a documentary about the Gulabi Gang, men in the villages where member s live are supportive of the group. They see the changes that the group’s efforts have brought about, and respect them for it.

I first read about the Gulabi Gang in my roommate’s copy of the latest issue of Bust Magazine. I was truly touched by this story, and amazed by the strong woman that is Sampat Devi. I believe she is helping to change the lives of so many Indian women for the better, and helping them to empower themselves.

“As long as I draw breath, I will not stop this fight. If I live to be 100, I will not stop fighting.”
– Sampat Devi



Top photo: Sampat Devi stands in front of her Gulabi Gang

Bottom photo: Some Gulabi members practice using the lathi


Sampat Devi’s direct quotes taken from this documentary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opZz87S2v6M

1 comment:

  1. I'm really glad you took this article to heart and are going to lengths to share it with as many people as possible! That woman is so heroic in what she does, and it's all completely selfless.