The Vikalp Women’s Group, Protecting Vulnerable Women in India

Vikalp Women’s Group formed in 1996 to combat domestic violence and discrimination against women in Gujarat, India, particularly tribal women. The organization has an all-female Board of Trustees, which includes the founder and director, Indira Pathak and program director Maya Sharma (photo). Vikalp means ‘alternative’ in Hindi and Gujarati.

These pages start by describing the challenge that faces tribal women in Gujarat. These women are at risk from violence but receive little protection from the law. They are disempowered by husbands who get drunk and sell the family mortgage to pay off debts. They are charged an exorbitant fee by middlemen to transport their cotton to the market. Finally, a small number who identify as males face discrimination and violence from their own families.

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Leading by example: Indira Pathak (left) and Maya Sharma (right) are co-directors of the Vikalp Women’s Group.

As an advocate for tribal women and people of transgender, Vikalp has taken on all of these challenges and more. Vikalp’s most notable achievement has been to establish two courts, with women judges, that offer legal redress and settle family disputes. Vikalp has also established a cooperative which provides microcredit and buys back mortgages. It has taken a brave stand on behalf of transgender people.

AP was introduced to Vikalp in 2010, and has since sent five Peace Fellows to the group. Their strong blogs and videos have provided much of the material for these pages. AP’s Director Iain Guest visited Vikalp in 2011 and deputy director Karin Orr followed up with a visit in October 2013. AP and Vikalp are seeking funds to help Vikalp open two safe houses in Gujarat and increase microlending to tribal women and LBTI.

The Threat to Tribal and Vulnerable Women in Gujarat

Lack of Protection Under the Law

On paper, India’s legal system is progressive, as 2013 Peace Fellow Pryia Desai explained in a blog. The Indian Constitution grants women the same rights as men and prohibits discrimination based on sex, caste, race, religion, or place of birth. However, the laws are not enforced, and poor and tribal women face enormous difficulties in accessing the legal system. Plaintiffs travel long distances to have their case heard, only to find that the proceedings are not held in the local tribal dialect. In addition, it can take years for a case to be heard and the process is extremely expensive.

These legal shortcomings are particularly dangerous for tribal women, who are vulnerable to acts of violence. Vikalp has registered hundreds of cases and received many heart-rending appeals. In one case, August 2008, a young woman named Sitaben Ganpatbhai Padiyar claimed to have been attacked by her brothers in law, set on fire, and robbed. Vikalp sent a staff member to meet with her. Sitaben told her that her inlaws had dragged her along the road and beaten her mercilessly. But her husband, Ganpatbhai, vehemently disputed his wife’s account. He said that the dispute was about an anklet, which Sita had sold without him knowing.

Sitaben responded: “I sold the anklet and with that money I bought food to feed my son. All you do is drink and roam about, bringing nothing to the house and in the meantime suspect me of misbehaving.” Her husband threateningly replied, ‘You file as many cases as you wish. I will sell the land and find a way out. But if you file the case and I go to jail, who will feed our son?’”

Vikalp took this case to the local government officer (known as the sarpanch) and asked that it be referred to the police and that Sitaben be taken to hospital. The deputy sarpanch inquired, and found that the family did not want the case going to court. This was no surprise to Vikalp, which referred the case to the Nari Adalat a tribal court that is run by and for women.

Tribals of Gujarat

Vikalp’s principal stakeholders are tribal women. Tribal people are recognized as an indigenous minority in the state of Gujarat, where they accounted for 14.8% of the population in 2001. Narmada District, in Gujarat, is home to several different tribes, including the Bhil, the Vaswa, the Tadavi, and the Baria. As Peace Fellows have explained in their blogs, there are important differences between the majority Hindu culture, and that of tribals. Hindus believe in four distinct castes, but there is no caste system in tribal culture. The relationship between men and women in tribal communities is more egalitarian, and the gender distinction is less rigid, than in Hindu families. Tribal daughters can inherit land. Also, tribal communities do not practice an organized religion, but instead worship life and nature. They used to be migratory, but now work mainly in agriculture. In spite of the differences, tribal culture is gradually changing under the Hindu influence. For example, many tribal women now cover their heads, like Hindu women. Intermarriage is also becoming more common.

Meanwhile, two Vikalp activists went to the police station, while two more Vikalp members went to Sitaben’s house to take her to hospital. Sitaben died before they arrived. It was one more reminder that the state legal system does little to prevent violence in rural Gujarat. (Nadabhen’s letter will be included in a book of women’s testimony being written by Maya Sharma of Vikalp.)

Economic Marginalization

Hunger for Land: Husbands get drunk and mortgage the family land to pay off their debts.

Tribal women also face the threat of poverty. Under the law, women can inherit land, but the land is likely to be registered in the name of the husband. Unfortunately, many husbands get drunk and mortgage the land to pay off debts without the consent or knowledge of their wives. Some women are able to retain control of their land, and most of them grow cotton as a cash crop. But the government bazaar where cotton is sold is controlled by men, so women sell their cotton to middlemen in order to get it to market. The middlemen under-weigh the cotton and offer below market price, decreasing the women’s income by as much as a third.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LBTI) people live in a deeply threatening environment. This is particularly true of Females to Males (FTM) – women who seek to escape gender behavior (eg dress codes) and the pressure to marry. FTM are likely to face enormous pressure from their own family members and may even be at risk from honor killing if they are forcibly returned to their villages.

LBTI people also face difficulty in finding work and housing, in establishing a legal relationships with partners, in drawing up a will and in adopting children. Professionals (doctors, lawyers, media and police) lack a basic understanding of sexual orientation, and official documents only recognize males and females.

All of this has produced intense isolation among FTM and can even lead to suicide. Samantha Syverson, a Peace Fellow who volunteered at Vikalp in 2011, captured the threat to FTM in a poignant blog about two lovers, Reka and Sonu. Sonu was born female but identified as male. The two became friends and in time their friendship developed into love. So they ran away together. Furious, Rekha’s family charged Sonu with abduction and theft and even convinced the police to detain Sonu’s parents, alleging that they had helped the couple escape.

The two lovers went into hiding and moved to a new location, with help from Vikalp. But under the pressure they began to quarrel. Sonu contacted Rekha’s family and asked them to take her back. Samantha picked up the story in her blog: “When Rekha’s family arrived to retrieve her, Sonu couldn’t cope with the reality of the situation. He ran to the bathroom and poured kerosene on himself. His brother had to forcibly stop him from finding matches. Rekha embraced Sonu and told him all he had to do was ask her to stay and she would. Sonu was silent. The relationship was over.”

When Homosexuality is a Crime

Star-crossed lovers: Sonu (left) was born female but identifies as a male. Sonu and Rekha (center) ran away from home to escape intimidation by Rekha’s family. For the full story, read the blog by 2011 Peace Fellow Samantha Syverson.

Gay sex remains a crime in India, in spite of a long and vigorous campaign by advocates that include Vikalp. The ban dates from 1861 and was imposed by the British colonial administration. It appears as Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and litigates against “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. While not explicitly mentioning homosexual behavior, this criminalizes homosexual relations and calls for a 10-year jail term.

The Indian Supreme Court suspended the ban in 2009, on the ground that Section 377 was discriminatory and violated several articles in the Indian Constitution. The Court said gay sex between consenting adults should not be treated as a crime. But this ruling was itself overturned on December 11, 2013 by the Indian Supreme Court, which said that only parliament could amend the Constitution by law. It was a huge blow to gay rights and criticized as such by activists and government ministers. For Vikalp, the issue was further complicated by the fact that Section 377 also offers the only legal way to prosecute sexual abuse of children. While Vikalp opposes Section 377, it also believes that child abuse must be illegal.

Vikalp Takes Action

Violence Against Women and Access to Justice

Family dispute (1): Salmabhen charged her in-laws with harassment before the family court. The court ordered a fact-finding mission. Although men are increasingly inclined to use the court, Salmabhen’s husband left in disgust when his wife and mother got into an argument.

Vikalp began campaigning against violence in 2005, when it organized a protest during the tribal celebration of Holi. Vikalp set up booths in villages to share information on the Domestic Violence Act of 2005 and organized a street play to expose the threat facing women from the charge of witchcraft. (In many parts of India, women who are considered different are liable to be called witches, and subjected to abuse, violence, and even murder.) Vikalp is also a member of the Aman (‘peace’) network, a nationwide association of organizations that works to stop violence against women.

Vikalp’s major contribution to the protection of women has been the establishment of two alternative courts – the Nari Adalat and Mahila Panch – that are run by women and help marginalized women access the legal system. These courts are innovative and successful, and could serve as a model for other countries. They also offer tribal women some protection against the violence and abuses that was described on the earlier pages.

Family dispute (2): In June 2012, Peace Fellow Alicia Evangelides attended a hearing of the Mahila Panch court at which involved a husband and wife who both claimed they were beaten by the other. The husband even took off his shirt to show scratches that he said had been caused by his wife (photo). The judges sent out a fact-finding investigation and the case resumed at a second hearing ten days later. Fed up, the husband asked for a divorce. At first the wife refused, afraid of being left poor and alone. But under gentle questioning from the judges, the husband offered to left his wife keep her dowry in return for a divorce. The wife relented and the court set a date for the agreement to be

The Nari Adalat was originally created in 1989 as an education initiative to provide women in Padra with a forum and then evolved into a legal process. The court meets under a large neem tree in front of the local magistrate’s office, and hears cases on rape, domestic abuse, child custody, and land ownership. Such issues once belonged in the private sphere, but it became increasingly evident that some sort of dispute settlement for women was needed. The judges of Nari Adalat are Dalit. While anyone can appeal to the Nari Adalat, plaintiffs are almost always poor.

The second court, Mahila Panch, is located in the tribal area of Tilakwada. Cases are heard in a large amphitheater. The judges are all tribal women and are elected by the members of a cooperative, Sakhi Sangathan, that was also set up by Vikalp (below). Once elected, judges receive training in international, national, and human rights law from Vikalp.

The Mahila Panch and Nari Adalat take up about 150 cases a year and offer many advantages over the state courts. They are inexpensive (plaintiffs pay a nominal fee); accessible (in terms of language and location); and free from bureaucracy. Cases are heard and conflicts resolved in a fraction of the time that it would take in a government court. The fact that judges are themselves tribals or Dalit reverses the power structure and puts women into leadership positions within their communities.

AP Peace fellows have written extensively about the courts, and even written FAQs which explain the process. AP has also produced several videos on Vikalp’s work.

The process begins when a plaintive (usually female) comes before the court and tells her side of the story. The court will then summon witnesses or opposing parties to come to the next session. If they refuse to show, the court can threaten them with legal action. After hearing both sides of a story and establishing the facts, the court will make a decision. This is written on 500-rupee paper and taken to a local magistrate or panchayat (tribal council) to be stamped and given the force of law.

The court also sends judges out to investigate and follow up, as described in one blog by Peace Fellow Andra Bosneag. Both sets of judges have used Indian and international law in reaching a decision – something that appealed greatly to a group of law students from Georgetown University, who visited Vikalp in 2010 with help from AP. The students found it exciting to see Indian women building their own body of case law.

Many of the cases heard by the courts concern domestic disputes, and it is a measure of their growing credibility that many of the plaintiffs are men. Peace Fellows Pryia Desai and Andra Bosneag both wrote vivid blogs about a case involving a young man, Imraan, whose wife Almaben and mother in law were feuding over the latter’s lover.

In another case that caught the attention of Peace Fellows, Kamjibhai Lalubhai, a landowner, lodged a complaint in the court against his neighbor whom he accused of June 2012, “land-grabbing.”

Court decisions can be appealed, but they are not imposed and most settlements are reached by consensus.

As a result, it is rare for an appeal to be heard. If one of the parties feels that the settlement is not being respected, he or she can return to the court.

Peace Fellow Pryia Desai, an Indian national who studies at Georgetown University, concluded that the courts are truly representative of the community. It was this, not coercion, that gives them their legitimacy and ensures that decisions will be respected: “The Nari Adalats are based on restorative justice, which is concerned far more about restoration of the victim and the victimized community than about the increasingly costly punishment of the offender. It also requires the entire community to hold the offenders accountable and, whenever possible, make them accept responsibility for their behavior. The enforcement is based on social pressure, the process is voluntary, the rules of evidence and procedure are flexible, there’s no legal representation, and formal law is merely one factor in reaching a compromise.”

Pryia went on to note that the experience of volunteering at Vikalp had given her a new perspective on justice in her own country: “The women’s courts in particular have opened my eyes and mind to the extent of alternatives available in the process of settling disputes.

The Women’s Court Rules on Land-Grabbing

Kamjibhai Lalubhai (photo) is the father of Jelly, one of the judges of the Mahila Panch women’s court. He is also one of many men to have appealed to the women’s court. In 2005, he filed a court case against his neighbor after the man attempted to steal some of Kamjibhai’s land by moving his fence – an act that is known as “land grabbing.” The neighbor was trying to get in ahead of a new law requiring all land-owners to have their land measured. Kamjibhai took swift action, with the support of the Mahila Panch women’s court. He filed a theft case with the state government and won his case in the state court. His neighbor was ordered to return the land that he had stolen. The Mahila Panch then followed up to make sure that the verdict was upheld.

This has helped me to break down some of the barriers in my thinking and problem solving, and to be more open to alternative solutions.”

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Vilalp has long been sensitive to the special needs of the LBTI community, particularly tribals. During the Gujarat Social Forum of 2005, held in Ahmedabad, Vikalp organized the first-ever gender and sexuality training for attendees. More recently, in response to the threat to transgender people described on an earlier page, Vikalp has established a sub-group, known as Parma, to provide LBTI people with a safe center and space where they can find protection, family mediation, and assistance. Parma is also assisting an emerging LBTI support group called Sabrang Gujarat. Parma is one of only a handful of LBTI groups in India that work with rural and tribal LBTI populations, and its advice is often sought out by LBTI organizations elsewhere.

Economic Empowerment

Mani-Ban, 65, is one of the most active judges on the tribal court.

In an effort to empower tribal women and integrate them more into the rural economy, Vikalp created a women’s cooperative, Sakhi Sangathan, in 1996. Approximately 300 women from 13 villages in rural Gujarat formed self-help groups, which were then merged into the larger cooperative. Vikalp raised capital and set up a revolving fund. Over 600 women have taken out loans in the years since and the default rate is typically zero.

Sakhi Sangathan has also bought out, and given back, the mortgages of about 40 women. It will be harder to break the cotton monopoly. Vikalp has concluded that if cooperative members were able to sell their cotton directly at the government bazaar rather than through middlemen, it would increase their income by up to 30 percent. The question is how a cooperative of women can change this deeply rooted practice. Sakhi Sangathan also serves as a watchdog to ensure that rural tribal women benefit from government programs including the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.


Vikalp’s work has brought to light a high prevalence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in rural and tribal areas. Because HIV/AIDS prevention is a high priority for the Indian government, the government of Gujarat selected Vikalp to administer an HIV/AIDS project in these areas. This project involved research on the health of men who have sex with men (MSM) and sex workers. Vikalp has also participated in a government HIV/AIDS campaign.

After Reliance, a large company, received a contract from the Gujarat state government to conduct HIV/AIDS training with the state’s police, the company hired Vikalp to provide training on HIV/AIDS, sexuality, and gender. Vikalp also offers HIV/AIDS awareness and testing through Saathi Sangathan. Another community initiative, Stree Sangathan, helps sex workers (photo). Both groups have become important partners for the government of Gujarat in the struggle to increase HIV/AIDS awareness.


Vikalp and Parma have conducted numerous surveys into the needs of these vulnerable populations and also chronicled the stories of working class lesbians in Maya Sharma’s book Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Unprivileged India. Helped by a team of Georgetown law students in 2010, Parma also designed a survey on the female-to-male transgender population which identified 25 beneficiaries – the first-ever of its kind in India. Parma has been an active member in the campaign to decriminalize homosexual sex by reading down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (above). A story from Loving Women was used as evidence in litigation, detailing the treatment that lesbians face as a result of criminalization.

Networking and Fundraising

Vikalp is part of a loose but vibrant network against discrimination through its cooperative (Sakhi Sangathan) and women’s court (Nari Adalat). In addition, Parma is part of a campaign, led by the Alternative Law Forum, that is lobbying for a law that will protect individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Parma is also active role in lobbying for the formation of a South Asian Human Rights Association. Vikalp and Parma have received funding in the past from the Ford Foundation, Astrea, the American Jewish World Service, the Global Fund for Women and the Fund for Global Human Rights.

Early Lobbying, Occupational Health

In 1999 large numbers of women came to Vikalp for help in claiming widow’s compensation. Vikalp discovered that their deceased husbands had all worked in a factory that processed silica stones, and was able to prove that workers were contracting silicosis. The state government retorted that this had not necessarily caused their deaths. Vikalp then filed a public interest litigation (PIL) with the Gujarati High Court, asking the state to investigate the cause of death. This confirmed that the men had indeed suffered from silicosis. Although it did not win the court case, Vikalp launched an education campaign to help workers understand the occupational health hazards of working in these factories.

Alternative Housing for the Poor

In 2005, the local government demolished slums which were said to have caused flooding. But the slums were also home to poor people, and Vikalp organized a campaign for alternative housing. The council promised housing, but it never materialized. Vikalp stepped up its campaign and collected ration cards and electricity bills to show how long the residents had lived in the slums. Vikalp also filed a case with a local lawyer. The case was won and the government built new housing for the residents of the slums.


The Immoral Traffic [Prevention] Amendment Bill (ITPA) of 2006 criminalizes the trafficking of persons for any purpose, including prostitution. While Vikalp agrees that trafficking should be illegal, it does not feel that sex work should be criminalized, and Vikalp joined a national campaign to protest against this component of the bill (photo). Vikalp believes that separate bills should be created, one for the prevention of trafficking and one legalizing sex work. This would protect the rights of sex workers, while putting traffickers in jail.

Support from AP and Peace Fellows

Vikalp sought partnership with AP in 2010 at the recommendation of the Columbia University Program for Human Rights Advocates. (Vikalp’s program director, Maya Sharma, is a former alumnus of the program.) In 2011, AP joined with the Community Justice Program at Georgetown University and with Vikalp to submit a proposal to Georgetown University.

The partners secured a grant for $15,000 and used the money to send a team of 5 students to Gujarat in the spring of 2011 under Law Professor Jane Aiken. The students helped Vikalp to develop a survey on the number and location of sexually marginalized women among the tribal population.

This 2011 grant from Georgetown University also enabled AP to deploy two Peace Fellows from Georgetown, Samantha Syverson and

2013: Pryia Desai
(Georgetown University)

2013: Andra Bosneag
(Tufts University)

2012: Alicia Evangelides
(Columbia University)

2011: Samantha Syverson
(Georgetown University)

2011: Meredith Williams
(Georgetown University)

Pryia Desai from Georgetown University (center) and Andra Bosneag (Tufts) served as Peace Fellows at Vikalp in 2013.

Meredith Williams, to work with Vikalp in the summer. Samantha and Meredith helped Vikalp staff to develop a website (Parma), and identified 25 stakeholders using the questionnaire.

AP’s Director Iain Guest also visited Vikalp in the summer of 2011 to produce a promotional video on Vikalp and develop a long-term plan for the partnership.

Vikalp’s 2012 Peace Fellow, Alicia Evangelides, worked on Vikalp’s website and drafted a generic proposal for foundations. Alicia also organized paintings classes for 25 tribal women and girls. The paintings produced a lively portrait of tribal life and are reproduced on this page. Alicia also produced a Day in the Life video.

The two 2013 Peace Fellows, Pryia Desai and Andra Bosneag, worked with a small number of tribal artists to produce spectacular painted panels in the local Pithora style. The panels are being assembled into a quilt by Nancy Evans, from the faithful Circle Guild in Maryland, a long-time AP partner.

Above: Maya and Indira with 2011 Peace Fellows Samantha Syverson and Meredith Williams, both from Georgetown Law School.
Alicia Evangelides, from Columbia University, made this video about her fellowship at Vikalp in 2012.


Photos by 2013 Fellow Pryia Desai

Photos by 2013 Fellow Andra Bosneag

Photos by 2012 Fellow Heather Webb

Photos by 2012 Fellow Alicia Evangelides


Vicalp Women’s Group
E/5, Saptgiri
Akota Road
Vadodara 390020
Gujarat Province, India
Office: 91-265-235-2589
Phone: 91-9879-725-969 (Indira Pathak, Founder and Director)
Other: 91-9687-325-211 (Maya Sharma, Program Director)
Fax: 91-265-235-2589


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