In a dusty neighborhood in the northern Indian city of Lucknow, Usha Vishwakarma readies her army of young women for battle.
Standing on her doorstep, she leads the teenagers in martial art drills. The 25-year-old said while she and other women cannot change the mindset of potential attackers, they can work to protect 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.”
Vishwakarma said her Red Brigade
was born out of necessity in 2010 when she felt abandoned and traumatized after an attempted rape by a colleague.
She said police were unresponsive, and the man who tried to rape her spent the following months mocking her for reporting the attack. She said the incident, coupled with the rape of an 11-year-old girl she tutored, was the breaking point.
Her group of what has grown now to 200 young women, many victims themselves, patrol the streets of Lucknow in the traditional “salwar kameez” - red symbolizing danger, black for protest - ready to confront and humiliate men who tease, touch and commit other acts of sexual harassment and assault.
Afreen Khan, 17, said she helped start the Red Brigade after her father threatened to take her out of school because of the near daily harassment she experienced while heading to class.
“Before we used to hear so many lewd comments, now there is hardly any teasing,” Khan said. “There are a lot of people with us, supporting us and that makes us feel more proud that we are doing this type of work.”
The Red Brigade’s work took on special resonance after a 23-year-old student was gang-raped and beaten aboard a private bus in New Delhi in December of 2012. She died weeks later in a Singapore hospital.
Thousands took to the streets all over India to protest the brutal attack, but a year later - not much seems to have changed.
The number of reported rapes in the Indian capital this year has nearly doubled compared to last year.
Vishwakarma said attacks outside the capital rarely make headlines or stir such public outrage. She said that life, particularly in the conservative state of Uttar Pradesh, can be bleak for a woman who is discouraged from speaking up or standing up for herself, whether it be by her parents or her husband.
“A woman is not considered a human being, but something that is to be used,” she said.
It has not been an easy road for Vishwakarma and her Red Brigade. At first, she said even her family was opposed to her efforts for fear of what neighbors would say about the young women stepping out of their homes and raising their voices.
Even on this day, the Red Brigade members were cautious as not to conduct their martial art drills in public view.
Still, Vishwakarma has not been deterred by societal norms. She is steadfast in ensuring girls and women gain the confidence they need to protect themselves. The Red Brigade has drawn worldwide media attention and her mother who was once apprehensive says she is proud of Vishwakarma and her three other daughters.
“I want the girls to get ahead, do good work. I want them to have a different life than what I had,” said Singhari Devi as she watched her daughters don their red-and-black uniform.
Vishwakarma also has high hopes of seeing a Red Brigade in each Indian city in the next year.