Red Brigade confronts India sex abuse

Group of Delhi women enforces its own vigilante style of justice, even using physical intimidation against harassers.

The December 16 gang-rape in Delhi sparked protests across the country and opened India’s eyes to atrocities committed against women and girls on a daily basis.

The demonstrations and media scrutiny forced the government to respond. It drew up a new sexual offences bill that updated the archaic piece of judiciary that once constituted as laws to protect women.

The police also came in the spotlight, partly for their failings in investigating the violence. But more importantly, for an issue that is prevalent across the country – refusal to register complaints of sexual assault.

Delhi police is trying to do something to address the situation. They are implementing reforms which authorities hope will sensitise their officers. But what’s most apparent is that any change will take years, and there is no interest in changing how India’s police operate in the rest of the country’s states.

The reality is, little has changed for Indian women and girls. Aside from a media far more willing to expose sexual attacks on minors, females aren’t any safer, or any more likely to get justice.

For one group though, there has been a transformation in the past few months.

Usha Vishwakarma, a 25-year-old teacher in a slum area, started Red Brigade after her colleague tried to rape her. She managed to escape, but when she tried to report th incident, she was told by her school and the police to stop making a fuss. She later found out that almost all her students had been sexually abused. They faced anything from daily harassment, like cat calls and molestation, to rape. She realised that the community preferred to remain silent, and the police weren’t interested in taking any action.

Instead the victims’ parents would pull their daughters out of school to keep them “safe”.

The Red Brigade started off as a group that enforced its own vigilante style of justice. If a girl or a woman was assaulted in any way, the group would confront the perpetrator. If he didn’t respond, they would tell his parents and family, and if that didn’t have any impact, they would use physical intimidation. All the Red Brigade girls are trained in martial arts.

Here’s the transformation I mentioned earlier: When they started, they received little recognition. In fact they were ostracised and called “Call girls” and other demeaning names. Mothers would warn their daughters to stay away from the group, while men, intimidated by them, would spread nasty rumours about them. But since December, when in India it was suddenly OK to talk about sexual abuse, the Red Brigade has been elevated from a gang of slum women looking to cause trouble, to empowered women who can help their community. In fact just a couple of weeks ago they won a national bravery award.

And rightly so. The group has grown, and to their credit, they’ve managed to get dozens of girls back into schools. They’ve drilled into their low-cast low- income community that girls are important, and taught them that they deserve justice if they are attacked in any way.

Boys and men in their slum in Madiyav, are now more wary of harassing their neighbours. In fact, according to the group, the number of assaults and molestations have decreased.

Usha wants to take her message further. She wants other communities to adopt their model of empowering females. And it seems there is much interest.

All the members of the Red Brigade are planning to continue their education. They plan to be doctors, lawyers, and policewomen, but ultimately members of society – women who can fend for themselves and give back to their community.

Two Red Brigade members tell their stories:

Lakshmi, 16
When eve teasing in our area started to increase, we didn’t know what to do. If we complained, we’d be told to stay home and stop our education, which we did not want. So some of us got together and we found out that it’s happening to all of us. We decided we should stand together against the boys that were demeaning us. If the police were receptive, strong and powerful we would not have needed our group to fight against the molestation.

Pinky, 17

When I was in 9th grade, my school principal tried to touch me while pretending to teach me to tie my tie. He was known for touching other girls, too, but when they told their parents they were taken out of school. I told Usha about this as I didn’t want to be pulled out of school. She confronted the principal. But he stayed, and I had to leave the school. I ended up doing my board exams on my own.