“All these girls that I had helped earlier came to my support. Around 60-70 women came to the police station and asked that either I be released or they be put in jail too. It was overwhelming to see such support. This is what keeps me going”
Lucknow: With just 15 number of core members in 2011, the force reached 8,500 in Lucknow in 2013. The master mind behind the world-famous Red Brigade, which addresses the issue of sexual violence in India, is ‘Usha Vishwakarma’, a survivor of attempted rape herself.
Usha was 18 when she was attacked by a hooligan but she was not one to let go and decided to fight for the cause of women’s safety in India. As a result, a group was formed in Lucknow with 15 women who were dedicated to stop sexual violence against women.
“When I faced the attack, I was angry more than scared. I wanted to do something so that such guys do not think of doing anything like that with anyone else in the future. Unless we take action, how will the situation get better?” asks Usha Vishwakarma.
Today, the initiative is recognized worldwide as the Red Brigade, and has over 8,500 members across the country as of 2013.
“There are a lot of expectations from us now,” says Usha. Usha and her army of women were given the name ‘Red Brigade’ by people when they saw the women together in similar outfits.
“We would do ‘nukkad nataks’ (street plays) and our uniform was a red and black suit. So whenever people saw us marching, they would call us the ‘red brigade’ in fun. But we liked it so much that we kept the name.
The Red Brigade team started helping women by first talking to the harassed ladies. Then they would also go the culprits’ homes and complain about them. “Often, just informing the family helps because they might be able to keep a check on his actions,” she says.
They filed police complaints and brought the attackers out in public. “We even beat up a few men,” she remembers. But, for substantial change to be brought about, bigger steps had to be taken. So, Usha started teaching self-defence to the girls.
The Red Brigade team would not teach self-defence in just one style, but they would customize the moves. “We did not teach them karate because that requires space between people. During rape it is just the opposite, there is no space between the two people and the victim can’t even properly move her body to successfully use karate. So we teach the women to fight in a way that targets the weaknesses of the attacker,” Usha says.
Today, Red Brigade has trained over 17,000 women in self-defence and aims to reach out to one million in the next few years.
Through their initiative ‘Good Touch Bad Touch’, Red Brigade focuses on educating adolescent girls aged between 6 and 11 on how to respond in a particular situation.
“This is a very crucial age for kids — be it boys or girls. Because if a kid starts to enjoy such activities, he/she will get distracted and spoil his/her future. And if they don’t, they may go into shock and take a lot of time to recover or live their normal lives,” says Usha.
Red Brigade reaches out to teenage girls studying in government schools and counsels them about important aspects of their life, including education and marriage. “We support the girls who want to study going forward, and organize awareness sessions where topics like ‘the right age for marriage’ and ‘women’s rights’ are discussed,” she says.
One of the most important activities that Red Brigade undertakes is the empowering of rape and eve-teasing survivors. It reaches out to them, provides counselling, and helps them get back on their feet.
“A lot of women just lose interest in life — they are scared and are often left without any support. We make sure that they regain their confidence and live a better life,” Usha says.
After the distressing Delhi gang rape of 2012, Red Brigade started holding protest marches on the 29th of every month to support rape victims and survivors.
“Being a girl itself is a challenge. Everything else just follows.”
“Our challenges start as soon as we are born. Some girls are not even that lucky. They are killed even before they open their eyes,” says Usha.
Her own journey wasn’t easy either. She faced a lot of criticism from both society and family for starting Red Brigade. “People would call me a ‘call girl.’ My parents were also against me for this. But it was something I had to do and I wasn’t ready to give it up just because society had a problem with it,” she says.
But soon, as the Red Brigade started reaching out to more people and became a worldwide name, the allegations stopped and the same people who were once against Usha came forward to help her.
“It is the work that speaks. They saw the impact, they realised what I was doing. I am glad that I am in a position to help others, it is a huge responsibility.”
– Usha Vishwakarma
Once, Usha took on a well-connected guy for harassing a girl. The guy’s parents belonged to a notable family and filed an FIR against Usha, because of which she was put in jail. “But all these girls that I had helped earlier came to my support. Around 60-70 women came to the police station and asked that either I be released or they be put in jail too. It was overwhelming to see such support. This is what keeps me going,” she says.
“People appreciate our work, we have received a lot of recognition, but we still have to struggle to meet our basic financial needs. I am not able to teach more girls because we don’t have money to hire instructors,” she says.