March 24, 2016–Sampat Pal, Leader of the Pink Brigade
Sampat Pal grew up Bundelkhan with four brothers who were sent to school to be educated while she was sent to mind the cattle and do the household chores. This did not stop her from learning all she could. When the cattle went out to graze, she would seat herself outside the school window and and listen to what the boys were learning. With a stick and some soft ground she would practice her letters and soon she had taught herself to read and write.
“I was scared to ask my parents to send me to school,” Pal recently told the New York Times. “That is how girls used to be in those days.”
She was married by age 12 and at 15 gave birth to her first child. But family life was not smooth. She rankled under the rules imposed by her mother in law and began standing up for herself and other women. When she was 20 a man in her neighborhood thrashed his wife. Pal warned him to stop and when he didn’t she organized a group of women to go with her and they beat the man up.
No man in that village dares to beat his wife anymore.
Eventually women from nearby homes and villages began coming to her for help and soon she organized a network of 600 women. She began educating them about their rights, and social ills such as untouchability, outlawed by the Indian constitution but widely practiced in parts of rural India, where it is used to socially discriminate against people who belong to the lowest rung in Hinduism’s caste hierarchy.
“To challenge the practice of untouchability in our village I drank water at a low-caste leatherworker’s house,” she said. “When women learned about what I had done, they left me.”
After facing social boycott and learning of a conspiracy to murder her, she left the village with her husband and five children to settle down in neighboring Badausa village, in the Banda district of Uttar Pradesh, her current residence.
Pal continued to reach out and organize women, and eventually her organization grew into the Gulabi Gang, complete with their own slogans and characteristic pink saris. The pink came out about because at one rally one of the women got lost and Pal decided they needed a uniform so they could easily identify one another and keep track of any who might be left behind.
Pink is also Pal’s favorite color because it was the color of her wedding sari.
The women in pink began calling themselves a “gang,” hailing, as they do, from a state that is notorious for gangsters. They began to pool finances, food grains and lentils to lend to members in need. It freed them from the clutches of village moneylenders who charged inflated interest rates, and ration shops that often fleeced them.
Pal encouraged them toward everything that empowered women such as using funds to start small businesses, running for council office, learning to sew, even self defense with the bamboo lathi. Schools have been started for Gulabi Gang children, and no girls go uneducated.
As people noticed her efforts to empower women, she received national as well as international recognition and awards.She and her gang are the subject of many books and documentaries. The Gulabi Gang is a registered non-profit. Membership has swelled to 400,000 strong.
“Whenever I faced any difficulty I would sing. I have never talked about my pain in the open,” Pal said. “My husband and children have always supported me. No one can break me.”