In the villages of Balod district in Chattisgarh, you'll come across groups of women wearing maroon berets; they're neither from the Army, nor are they part of a paramilitary force. They are housewives-turned-'commandos', and the beret is the only 'uniform' they sport.
This group of women commandos was formed in 2015 to fight local crime and social evils such as domestic violence and drug addiction by activist and Padma Shri awardee Samshad Begum.
The then superintendent of police in Balod, Arif Hussain Sheikh played an important role in community policing and in empowering these women by giving them the designation of special police officers (SPO) in mid-2016. He personally selected 10 women from each ward of every village to be named SPO and equipped them with a whistle and a beret.
The impact of this initiative was such that not a single person in Balod has been caught drinking outside liquor vends or gambling in the open since then.
“We are commandos. Women commandos,” said Lata Devi Sahu. “Women commandos don’t fight terrorism or Naxalism. We fight social evils.”
She said it is a good departure from being just housewives. “Now, we take some time out from doing household chores to contribute to the well-being of society,” Sahu told Firstpost.
Sahu's family lives in a 800 sq ft home. She starts her day at 5 am, prepares breakfast and lunch and helps her children get ready for school. Her son is 18 and daughter, a Class 12 student, is 16. Her husband is a farmer and also runs a small business in tent-houses and videography. After finishing the household chores, she helps her husband on the farm, and sits with other women commandos to discuss the day’s strategy.
She said she became a commando when she saw the increasing number of incidents of domestic violence and sexual abuse. “I soon realised that it was because of liquor and drugs. I thought (we must) end the menace and called for the cooperation and support of all women in my locality.”
That settled, she gathered about 200 women of Khapri village in Balod and organised a programme to talk of issues to take up to fight. “It was not easy to convince them. I faced some backlash, including attacks on my character. But I did not let those affect me. Today, every single girl and women here wants to become a woman commando,” she said.
But back then, at the start, the biggest challenge was to learn how to talk to strange men — in the police, and in positions of power in society.
“I had no formal training in policing. None of us have. My first challenge was to turn my husband around. Then the rest of the men of the village,” says Lata. “Alcohol is at the root of every problem be it eve teasing, molestation or domestic violence.”
True to her word, Sahu started her “work” as woman commando by weaning her husband from alcohol.
"We call a meeting of all women commandos on the 26th of every month and share details of work done during the entire month,” she said. “I can say with some satisfaction that progress has been made. The crime rate in Balod has fallen and there are fewer incidents of crimes against women.”
She spoke of a rape accused who was allowed to roam free by the khap. Brought to the notice of a woman commando, she raised it with the district police chief. "The accused had molested a minor girl twice, and he was out there roaming free after paying a fine of Rs 30,000 to the khap. This was not at all acceptable to us," Sahu said.
There are 20-25 women commandos in every block of the district. It is a volunteer-group. None of them are paid to “work”.
The women commandos patrol their jurisdictions every evening between 7 pm and11 pm.
"The only objective of a woman commando is to rid society of crime and drugs. We also promote girls' education," Sahu said. "Change comes from inside; inside a human being, inside a community.”
A 15,000-strong force
At this point of time, there are more than 15,000 women commandos in Balod district. “They fight social evils and Naxalism. They have been designated special police officers to boost their morale,” said Sheikh.
Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Dr Raman Singh has lauded the work of women commandos on more than one occasion. Balod district collector Dr Saransh Mittal said he is happy to see women in all the villages of Balod speaking in one voice against social evils.
"I am very happy to see all these women fighting social evils. This is the first district in India where women have taken up an initiative and made it a success with their hard work," he said.
How successful has the band of women commandos been? Current district police chief Deepak Jha said he could not comment on this off hand, but acknowledged the difference they have made. “We have not yet calculated the impact. Personally speaking, women policing is the best kind of community policing. And yes, cases of domestic violence have come down,” he said.
There is a lone liquor vend in Sahu's village but it is outside the residential boundary. If a man is caught drinking in public, he is warned. If he repeats the “crime”, the case goes to the police.
“Liquor-related violence has definitely dipped in the village, and that has contributed to overall happiness,” said Dinesh Sahu, Lata’s husband.
— With inputs from Hitesh Sharma, Chhattisgarh ; all photos/videos courtesy Kishor Kumar Sahu
The writer is a Chhattisgarh-based independent reporter and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters
Updated Date: Aug 27, 2017 08:14 AM