In the town of Lucknow, which resides within a conservative Indian state, an organization has been formed to defend girls and women who have been victimized by sexual harassment and rape. The Red Brigade operates as an independent entity within the state, made of women who themselves have experienced sexual violence. The women wear red and black salwar kameez and patrol the local neighborhoods and empower women through martial arts and self-defense techniques.
Usha Vishwakarma, who had been sexually harassed by a colleague at the age of 18, founded the Red Brigade in 2010. In an interview with The Guardian, Vishwakarma, describes the experience and the way the school administration and police dismissed her claims. “He grabbed me and put his hands around me and tried to open my belt and trousers, but I was saved by my jeans because they were too tight for him to open, and that gave me a chance to fight.” Following this traumatic experience, Vishwakarma opened a school for girls near her family’s home.
Vishwakarma continued to see young women affected by sexual violence. “Parents were telling girls to stay in their homes so there would be no incidents. They said, ‘if you go to school, boys will be troubling you, so stay home and there will be no sexual violence’. “But we said no, and we decided to form a group to fight for ourselves. We decided we would not just complain; we would take a lead and fight for ourselves,” said Vishwakarma. The advice given also held no credibility as several young girls reported being abused by relatives and parents, making homes feel no safer than the street.
In 2015, according to the National Crime Records Bureau of Indian 35,527 crimes against women were reported. According to the report, there was a total of 4,384 attempted rapes; the report goes on to point out the 29,211 crimes of sexual harassment against women, as well as 77,702 “assaults on women with intent to outrage her modesty.” A large majority of the crimes reported occurred on public transportation and places outside of work. The numbers also reveal that 94% of the victims knew their attackers. The majority of the attackers were neighbors, followed by relatives, and then parents. These figures also do not reflect unreported crimes and are thus underestimations of the true number of crimes committed.
“A woman is not considered a human being, but something that is to be used,” Vishwakarma said in an interview with VOA News.
Several high profile incidents have embolden the organization and given their mission more urgency. In 2012, a female student in New Delhi was gang raped while aboard a private bus. She died two weeks later from internal organ damage caused by an iron rod used by the attackers. The same year a 16-year old girl was raped by eight men who recorded the event on their cell phones, causing the girl’s father to commit suicide upon seeing the video. In 2016, a mother was raped by two men, who killed the woman’s child by heaving it from the rickshaw they were aboard.
In order to assuage the problem, Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde plans on recruiting more female police officers. Shinde ordered that each precinct have at least one female officer at each of the 166 stations. This initiative is to encourage women to report crimes. Officers will also receive advanced training in “handling cases dealing with women.”
The regularity of these incidents has enveloped the country in outrage, and made organizations like the Red Brigade more valuable, especially in instances when the justice system and the police fail the victims. In groups, the Red Brigade approach men accused of sexually harassing, touching, or catcalling women and demand them to stop, often using public shaming to make the community aware of the individuals crimes.
The Red Brigade’s website discusses the ineffectual and discriminatory nature of India’s police department and caste system.
“There is also wide scale discrimination in India in the delivery of basic services to poor people. The Government of India has strongly refused to acknowledge caste discrimination as an international human rights issue, which should be dealt with in the UN. Whether it is water, sanitation or health, the discrimination continues, and government sops have failed to do anything to subdue its impact.”
The Red Brigade has received the support of several other organizations interested in helping women feel safe. In 2013 Kuros, an Austin based business that provides women in developing countries with pepper spray partnered with the Red Brigade. FRIDA the Young Feminist organization, which “provides young leaders with the resources they need to amplify their voices and bring attention to their work, and the support, flexibility and network to keep their vision and influence alive” has also supported the organization.
The Red Brigade has substantially grown from an initial group of 15, and to date, they have trained over 1,600 girls and women to defend themselves. “We need to think that we should become so capable that if someone tries to attack us, then we respond in equal measure,” said Vishwakarma. “We want to make girls so mentally and physically strong that they can face any situation.”
Madari Pendas is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami. Her work has appeared in the Accentos Review, Pank Magazine, The New Tropic and the Miami New Times. Madari focuses on women’s issue abroad and Latin America.