Chanda Raj was fed up. For over two years, she had been suffering. Her husband Des Raj, an alcoholic, used to return home every evening drunk and then thrash her.
“Initially it used to be only at weekends, but in the past year and a half it became a daily routine,” says the 36-year-old from Navapada, a village in the Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh.
“He was keeping bad company and would come home drunk every night. His bad habit also cost him his job, and that worsened his mood. We had to rely on what I earned as a farm labourer.”
But in April this year, Des was in for a surprise. As he returned home as usual in a drunken fit, Chanda was prepared. Holding a stout bamboo pole, she barked out a warning: “If you hit me one more time, I will use this pole on you.” Although trembling, she clutched the club tightly and stared straight into the bloodshot eyes of her husband.
Des stopped in his tracks, unable to believe the transformation that had occurred in his wife. As he rubbed his eyes in confusion, he saw a group of around a dozen women gathered outside the house. They all brandished bamboo sticks and were standing silently, as though waiting for Des to take the first step. “Your wife is not alone,” said one of the women.
“We are with her. If you abuse her or harm her in any way again, we will thrash you,” said Tejubai Meda, the feisty head of the group. It worked. “That was the last day he raised his hand against me,” says Chanda. “In fact, it was the last day he ever had alcohol.”
Inspired by the now famous Gulabi gang, a team of rural Indian women who picked up cudgels to fight social evils and injustices in villages, Chanda and the women in the small village in central India are not hesitating to use force if it means improving their lives.
And they are not alone. Hundreds of women like Chanda and Tejubai, in several villages of northern India, are following in the footsteps of the Gulabi Gang to force their men to quit the habit of drinking alcohol.
Until recently it was not uncommon for a tribal man in Jhabua to beat his wife, sometimes even to death, if she so much as pleaded with him to stop drinking. “Violence against women was common,” says Tejubai. “And alcoholism was the main reason.
“We women used to discuss how to stop our men from ruining their – and our – lives. Initially we tried to tell them nicely, pleading with them, begging with them, but all we used to get in return were blows,” she says.
“When we realised that there was no option, we decided to protect ourselves and our families by following what the Gulabi gang members did – threaten them with lathis.”
A lathi is a thick, 1- to 1.5-metre-long bamboo stick, normally used by people in rural areas as a weapon for self-defence. “The lathis are only to scare them, but sometimes we are forced to use them as well when men turn violent and refuse to listen to us,” says Tejubai. In the past two years, more than 200 women have joined the group to steer the men on to the right path.
A survey conducted by a Madhya Pradesh-based voluntary organisation, Adivasi Chetna Shikshan Seva Samiti, found that more than 45 per cent of the population in Jhabua lives below the poverty line – surviving on less than $1.25 (about Dh5) a day. But what was shocking was that one in 10 men was an alcoholic.
Alcoholism is linked to high incidences of crime, not only in Jhabua but also in other parts of the country. Domestic violence and poverty are only a few of its repercussions. Children’s studies also suffer as an aftermath of alcoholism.
While the women of Jhabua who were worried about their husbands’ drinking habits took lathis in their hands, women in some other regions of India decided to tackle similar problems in less threatening ways.
For instance, women in seven villages in the Sitapur district in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh decided to use the power of speech to get their men to mend their ways.
Here, the movement started by word of mouth. While waiting in line to fetch water from the community well, the women, who used to share their woes with one another, realised that the most common problem they faced was the violence they had to endure from their alcoholic husbands. “Many of the families were struggling to make ends meet because the men would spend a large part of their earnings on liquor,” says Safia Zameer, the head of Mahila Samakhya – a group working for women’s welfare and empowerment – in Sitapur.
However, the bigger challenge was the illegal liquor manufacturing units that were thriving in many villages in Sitapur. Not only were they exacerbating the problem, they were also responsible for the deaths of many men who developed serious health conditions after drinking the spurious liquor.
A survey has also showed that an average family in rural settings spends 60 to 70 per cent of its income on alcohol.
“We used the DIY (Do It Yourself) strategy with these women. The idea was to educate them so that they are empowered enough to handle their issues on their own,” says Safia.
“First these women were trained and then they educated the men using illustrations and posters on how alcohol was destroying family life.
“It took time – almost a year – but eventually the men realised their mistakes and now in over a dozen villages, not a single alcohol unit is functioning. Men too have kicked the habit.”
Inspired by the warrior women of Jhabua and the communication experts of Sitapur, women from Saidpur Purahi, a village close to Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, decided to form a team under their woman Gram Pradhan (an elected village chief). This team visits the nearby villages and raises awareness about alcoholism and its adverse impacts on their families.
“We work with men and try to make them understand the problems their families are facing due to their drinking habits,” says Rama Kali, whose husband was an alcoholic but after several counselling sessions gave up the habit.
“We also go in a group to the liquor manufacturers and make it clear to them that they have to close down their business because it is illegal. We threaten to file cases against them and on some occasions have gone ahead and complained to the local authorities who have been forced to take action and come down on the manufacturers.”
The women have got various manufacturing units of country liquor shut down permanently.
While the women in Sitapur relied on kind words and posters to drive home the ills of alcohol, those in Bhonsala village in Haryana decided to resort to threats. Like their sisters in Navapada, the women in Bhonsala took up cudgels to protest at the opening of a liquor store in the village. Armed with lathis, they asked the owner of the store to close shop. When he refused, they vandalised the store and smashed bottles. Inspired by the Gulabi gang, they resorted to show of muscle power to clean up their village.
“Our daughters and daughters-in-law face harassment from inebriated men who stalk them and pass objectionable remarks,” says Rajori Gujjar, a woman in her early 40s, who is one of those daring women to have started the movement in Haryana.
“We have heard stories of the Gulabi gang and how they have been fighting against the social evils. We also have mustered courage to fight the battle face on instead of relying on others to fight on our behalf.”