The horrific gang-rape of a 23 year-old physiology student in a moving bus shortly after nightfall on December 16 in New Delhi has laid bare the failure of the Indian state to carry out one of its most basic duties: the protection of its female citizens. With the silence surrounding sexual violence pierced, mass protests have focused on the deficiency of official justice processes. In the northwestern state of Uttar Pradesh, meanwhile, a growing group of female vigilantes had already begun to take the law into their own hands.

Uttar Pradesh, with a population matching that of Brazil, is considered India’s wild west and has been written off as “lawless” by the central government. Despite being run from 2007 to 2012 by Kumari Mayawati, a lower-caste woman, the state has remained a dangerous place to be female – feudal rape is widespread and lower-caste women remain the most vulnerable to sexual violence.

It is in a bandit-plagued region of Uttar Pradesh called Bundelkhand, located in the southwest of the state, that one of the world’s most successful women’s vigilante organizations, the Gulabi Gang – known as the Pink Gang in English – is based. The group, which is named after its distinctive hot-pink sari uniforms and pink-painted bamboo sticks, formed in 2006 and is now reported to number 20,000 women. That is, double the size of the Irish Army and eight times the estimated number of al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan.

The founder and self-appointed Commander-in-Chief of the gang, Sampat Pal, is an illiterate woman who was married off at the age of 12 and bore the first of her five children at the age of 15. Despite her humble background, Pal’s spartan tworoom office in the dusty town of Atarra sees a steady flow of people arriving from sunrise to sunset with problems ranging from domestic violence and rape, to crimes like ‘dowry deaths’ – a widespread phenomenon whereby brides who do not offer a high enough dowry after marriage are murdered by in-laws seeking more money.

When new cases arrive at her door, Pal asks detailed questions about what is alleged to have happened, making sure to hear both sides of the story. Often, she gathers the whole village together to determine the truth of a certain claim. Then, Pal will either seek a resolution in an Oprah Winfrey-style group discussion or, if that is not possible, will accompany the alleged victim to the police station to make a formal complaint. This is, by far, one of the Pink Gang’s most subscribed services.

According to NGO Human Rights Watch, 87 percent of Indians mistrust the police. Despite the fact that virtually all complaints in India are made by visiting a police station, as opposed to calling an emergency hotline, many hesitate before doing so. Registering what is called a ‘First Information Report’ is a fraught process. Often, citizens are turned away because stations are short-staffed and lacking stationary. It is common for police, who are under-paid and over worked, to demand bribes in return for registering a complaint. If a case is brought against a powerful individual – a politician or well-connected businessman – police will likely shoo away petitioners as law enforcement officials are often under their patronage.

Apart from rampant corruption, women face an additional barrier to approaching the police. Most Indian women would not enter a police station on their own, especially not at night, given the numerous cases of custodial rape that occur in these facilities. Before the recent gang-rape case in New Delhi, the last time mass protests were held in response to sexual violence was in the 1970s. Back then, Indians took to the streets to decry the rape of a teenage tribal girl called Mathura by police officers in the state of Maharashtra, which resulted in the reform of laws pertaining to custodial rape. Despite the advances made since the Mathura case, such crimes remain widespread. The policing problem is particularly bad in Uttar Pradesh, which boasts the world’s largest police force under a single command. A.N Mulla, an Indian High Court judge, once described the Uttar Pradesh police force as the “biggest criminal organization in the world.”

Text and Photography by Amana Fontanella-Khan