Sampat Pal Devi is a mother of five and former government worker who was fed up with the high numbers of domestic violence and abuse cases in her native India. So she started a girl gang. Called the Gulabi Gang, Devi and her crew help avenge women who have been victims of violence by beating known abusers with bamboo sticks — until they repent.
Devi founded the group in 2006 after witnessing a man beating his wife in public. She was shocked to witness it, but equally horrified by the complete lack of concern of those around her. “I asked him ‘why can’t you see her as a human being just like yourself?’” Devi explained in a 2010 interview. ”That day, I left quietly, but stewed over it all night. The next day, along with five other women, I went back with a stout stick, and beat him black and blue until he begged for mercy!” The next day, even more women approached her about joining the cause.
Since then, they’ve helped liberate women from abusive marriages, rescued child brides and offered services to other women in need. Devi is no stranger to a culture of physical and spiritual violence against women. At 12, she was married off to an older man, and had the first of her five children at 15. Now 40, Devi devotes her time to organizing and mobilizing the more than 20,000 members of the gang. Her story is typical of so many women in India: The United Nations estimates that two out of three Indian men abuse their wives, though numbers could actually be much higher, considering Indian social mores about privacy in marriage.
India is plagued by several issues that negatively impact the lives of women, including honor killings, female infanticide and dowries. And that’s why the Gulabi’s agenda goes far beyond domestic violence issues. The group’s platform includes challenging government corruption, increasing female literacy, and eradicating child marriages.
Whether or not you believe in violence as a means of protest, it’s inspiring to see women in a traditionally misogynist and abusive context reclaim their power. Their grassroots approach to creating change has even attracted male supporters, who agree with their anti-corruption stance.
And just in case you thought you might miss them, they wear bright pink saris as a sign of solidarity with one another. In fact, the group’s name, Gulabi, is the word “pink” in Hindi. How’s that for reclaiming your “woman-child” status, eh?
A movie about the gang is currently in the works, though Devi believes that virtually anyone has the ability to harness their own personal power. “When people tell me I’m strong, I wonder,” she said. “Why do people feel helpless? If their rights are denied to them, all they’ve got to do is raise their voices,” she said. “Until the women around me become strong enough to fight for their rights, I’ll not stop fighting on their behalf.”