The power of pink

Sampat Devi Pal was all of 12 when she was married off. She had her first child when she was 15. Five years later, she took her first step against girls being doomed to a life like hers. When her neighbour, who used to beat up his wife every day, refused to yield to any counselling, she gathered some women, beat him up and paid him back in his own coin. "When I was married off, I didn't even know what a conjugal relationship was about. It wasn't that my husband ill-treated me, but I realised that the social norms are such that they won't let women like me breathe in fresh air," says Pal, now 48, and the head of a group of nearly 10,000 women in Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh, who call themselves the Gulabi Gang.

Her first act of violence, says Pal, came after prolonged contemplation. "This man, Ram Milan, used to beat up his wife mercilessly. At first I tried to reason with him, and then scolded him. He hurled obscenities at me. I realised that he had to be taught a lesson and the only language he understood was that of violence," says Pal, who comes from a family of farmers.

What Pal thought would be a one-off incident to protect someone she cared about, sent out feelers of a different sort in her village, Rawli. "The incident induced fear in people. Women started coming to me with various complaints, mostly related to domestic violence," says Pal.

It was not an organised group of women who worked under the banner of Gulabi Gang—any woman who approached Pal and expressed her wish to volunteer was considered a part of the group. Her first opportunity to act on an issue that was closest to her heart—child marriage—came a few years later.

"By then, people in neighbouring villages were aware of my activities. Someone informed me that a 10-year-old girl, Maya, in Nagwada village, was being married off to a 40-year-old man," says Pal. Pal rushed to the village, informed the local police and tried talking the parents out of the marriage. When the groom's family demanded money from the girl's parents, "they too suffered the fate of Ram Milan. They had to be beaten up, only then did they let the child's family be," says Pal.

Now, Pal's interests have expanded to casteist violence, land grab, and the rights of the poor. "Hundreds of poor families don't have BPL cards. They don't even know they are entitled to one. Through my network of women, I try and educate them about it," says Pal, who also organises talks with families to prevent honour killing and violence in the name of caste.

Pal, still essentially a homemaker, says she is thankful to her husband for his support. A fruit-seller during winter and a kulfi maker in the summer months, Pal's husband accompanied her to Attara, where the couple now lives, when her in-laws objected to her ways. "They were against the women of the house taking on men. We left their house in 1995. Despite pressure from my family, I got my daughter married only after she turned 18. All my four children went to school," says Pal. She has also started four sewing centres for underprivileged women with local support.

Pal's network of women has expanded over the last two decades. "Over time, I have appointed several district heads for our association. We don't have regular meetings, but we travel to several villages almost every day, and gather anywhere—in a house, under a tree, at a chai shop—to discuss problems. Women need to empower themselves and not ask for help all the time. That is my dream," says Pal.

A French publisher stumbled upon her story and turned it into a book. Soon after, GULABI, a France-based organisation that supports Pal's activities, was formed. "I met Sampat in France, when she had come to launch her book in October 2008. Her publisher, a friend of mine, had flown her down to Paris. Though there was a nearly insurmountable language barrier, we got a translator to start a conversation with her," says Cécile Romane, president of GULABI.

The organisation launched a website that spread word about Sampat's work. "Journalists and photographers from France, Italy, Spain, the US, Canada, and the UK have featured her work. Students studying women's rights have travelled to India to meet her. In Helsinki, a class of college students organised a fundraising concert to aid Gulabi Gang," says Romane.

Pink, Pal thought, is a colour all women look pretty in. "That's why I chose it to symbolise the group. I want to make the lives of these women as beautiful as the colour," she says.

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