Janki Devi’s relationship with the man she fell in love with was never an easy one. She was only 15 when she met twenty-something Anand Kumar, with whom she would lose her virginity a few months later.

Not surprisingly, both sets of parents opposed the union. In rural areas of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, as is the case across the country, marriages are still arranged by the families of those involved, regardless of romantic feelings, and are based on religion, caste, economic status and political relations between the two clans. Love, they say, comes with time and routine.

Janki Devi and Kumar’s parents demanded that they stop seeing each other. In defiance, the couple married in secret.

In 2006, as per Indian tradition, Janki Devi moved into the home her husband shared with his parents. And so began her nightmare.

Janki Devi and her husband were unable to conceive a child and, on February 23 this year, Anand’s parents doused her with petrol and set light to her. Neighbours rushed her to hospital but that night Janki Devi died.

When her parents tried to lodge a complaint with the police, the officers refused to register it.

Janki Devi was just one of the more than 300,000 women who each year are the victims of violence in India – a country where, according to official statistics from 2013, a woman is abducted every 10 minutes and one is raped every 20 minutes.

Shocking as they may be, those figures still fail to reflect the whole story, because, as Doreen Reddy, women programmes director for the NGO Rural Development Trust, explains, “For every case reported there is at least one other woman who suffered in silence.”

According to a government survey conducted in 2005 and 2006, 51 per cent of men – and a surprising 55 per cent of women – believe domestic violence is justified in certain circumstances. The No 1 justification cited was the disrespect of in-laws, followed by the neglect of housework and a wife arguing with her husband. Misogynous attitudes are not restricted to poor, rural areas: in February, India’s Supreme Court refused to categorise marital rape as a criminal offence.

A married but childless woman is often considered useless. Families, such as the one that killed Janki Devi, feel entitled to take matters into their own hands.

UNABLE TO FILE A COMPLAINT with the police against Kumar’s family, who belong to a higher caste and are influential, Janki Devi’s father, Dinesh Prasad Panday, is seeking justice elsewhere: he has brought the case to the Gulabi Gang (“pink gang”).

Founded in 2006 and based in Badausa, in the state’s Banda district, the group has about 400,000 members across Uttar Pradesh and helps bring rapists, abusers and corrupt policemen to justice.

Its founder, Sampat Pal Devi – an energetic 53-year-old – receives Panday on the ground floor of the three-storey building she owns.

Frowning, she looks at the harrowing photographs he took in the hospital of his badly burned daughter. Pal listens to his story before grabbing her phone and calling the police station where the vice-chief of police, Ajay Kulghat, refused to see Panday.

Pal needs only to say her name to grab the senior officer’s attention.

Shouting, she warns that, if an investigation into the death of Janki Devi is not opened promptly, the station will be besieged by enraged women.

“I don’t advocate violence, but there are times when that is the only way to fight,” she says, after finishing the call. “There are people for whom words and arguments are not enough.”

Those who join the Gulabi Gang are registered, given a small ID card and wear a distinctive uniform: a pink sari. For a 500 rupee (HK$60) annual fee they also get a stick to carry.

“It is intended to protect us but it is also used to threaten and, if necessary, to beat up abusers,” says Pal.

In 2002, when she saw a man beating a woman in the street, Pal intervened and was beaten, too. The next day, she gathered five women in her village and together they beat up the man who had attacked her.

She hasn’t looked back since; a few months ago she accused a judge in a court in the city of Atarra of inaction against gender violence and dragged him out onto the street.

Incidents such as these are why she has a dozen trials pending against her for violence, harassment and making threats. Nevertheless, Pal’s methods are working; half an hour after her call, a police commissioner agrees to meet with Panday.

Every day, Pal receives cases similar to that of Janki Devi’s. Often, she is unable to contain her anger because Pal can empathise only too well; the daughter of peasants, she was forced to marry a 25-year-old man soon after she reached puberty, at the age of 12.

“I was taken out of school when I didn’t yet know how to read and write, and I became a slave in the house of my in-laws,” she recalls.

Three years later, she gave birth to the first of her five children, who arrived “in a row, one every year”. Over time, her strength of character won the respect of her in-laws, and she began working for the government, as an adviser on women’s health.

“I became interested in the work of groups who said they were seeking women’s liberation,” she says. “But I realised that they could not meet any of their goals. People laughed at them. I know my position seems radical but sometimes the stick is the only way to achieve change.”

Pal’s vigilantism has attracted attention from international media but in India she remains a controversial figure. Some applaud her methods while others consider her an outlaw.

“Society will only change if we eliminate the inherently subordinate role given to women,” says Pal. “This is a revolution that has to come from us. Therefore, besides having established self-help and legal counselling groups to address individual cases, we focus on programmes to achieve their emancipation. From savings funds to events with companies where women can be hired.”

Her goals are clear: “Eradicating child marriage and the dowry tradition, acting firmly against domestic violence and promoting the empowerment of women through education and social awareness,” says Pal. “Many argue that those are rights already protected by our constitution, but the problem doesn’t lie with the law, which is good, but with its implementation. We live in a violent patriarchy that permeates all institutions, especially the police and politicians at the highest level.

“If we women don’t save ourselves, nobody will.”

Discrimination against Indian girls starts even before birth. Technology to determine the sex of a fetus makes it possible for people to earn a living in rural areas by taking an ultrasound machine door to door. If a fetus is found to be female, there is a great pressure for her to be aborted. The world averages 106 boys born for every 100 girls but in India the ratio is 112 to 100. It is estimated that in the past three decades, the nation has lost 12 million girls to feticide.

Fortunately for Vanita, a 21-year-old living more than 1,100km south of Badausa, in the town of Anantpur, her parents didn’t know she was a girl until she had been born. The eldest of five siblings, Vanita suffers triple discrimination: for her physical disability, for belonging to a tribal minority and for being a woman.

Vanita’s problems really started when her mother died.

“She had an accident in an autorickshaw – a three-wheeled taxi – and they could not save her,” recalls the young woman, sobbing.

“Within three months of her death, my father married a maternal aunt who abused me and with whom he had already maintained a secret relationship. Then … my father told me I had to leave school and start working, so I became a day labourer, where I was paid 100 rupees per day. But because I didn’t approve of his relationship with my aunt, she decided to get me out of the way by marrying me off to an uncle much older than me.”

Marriage between relatives is tolerated in India, but Vanita refused.

Her stepmother found a common solution: she asked Vanita’s suitor to rape her, so she would feel compelled to accept the marriage; few other men would have been interested in marrying a woman who was no longer a virgin.

“Premeditated rape is one of the most common formulas, even with children under 12, to force a girl to marry a particular man or break up a relationship that goes against the parents’ wishes,” says Pal.

“I crushed the crystal bracelets I usually wear and drank the powder to kill myself,” says Vanita, who discovered her stepmother’s plans. She was taken to hospital but her family then turned their back on her.

“They’ve now found another suitor. He’s already married, but as he has no children he may marry again. I don’t like him, he’s fat and old, but I know it’ll be difficult to find someone who’ll accept me with my disability.”

As a teenager, Vanita suffered a brain fever that paralysed her right hand and left leg. The paralysis is not obvious and barely affects her mobility but, in rural India, disability is a heavy social burden.

“In the end, I’ll end up marrying whoever they choose for me,” she says.

Although most people in rural India don’t marry, or stay married, for love, Pal does not approve of divorce: “It’s a way to turn women into a commodity. Men need to understand that women are not like sandals that you can change whenever you feel like it.”

Beside her, 22-year-old Sayah Bana nods. Two years ago, the Muslim woman was abandoned by her husband, a teacher who physically and psychologically abused her and who now has a second wife.

“He told me to return to my parents’ house with our two children,” she recalls. “I went to the police to report him for bigamy, but everyone ignored me, so a few months ago I decided to join the Gulabi Gang to assert my rights.”

Despite the beatings by her husband, especially when he was drunk, Bana doesn’t want a divorce. She wants him to leave his second wife so they can continue living as a family.

“We didn’t make any progress with the case until we got the sticks out and we stood in front of the police station,” Bana says. “Now we will see what the judge decides.”

SUSEELAMMA NIRUGUTTA, WHO hails from Chintapalli, a village in the state of Andhra Pradesh, became a widow five days after giving birth to her second daughter.

In 2010, with no other way of earning an income, a desperate Nirugutta accepted an offer from a woman who promised her a job in the Indian capital, Delhi. She took her then 18-month-old daughter along, leaving her other daughter in the care of the child’s grandparents.

“We were taken to a house [in Delhi] where I worked as a maid and in which I was offered alcohol and meat,” Nirugutta says. “I am a vegetarian and I never drink, so I declined.” One day she was forced to drink.

Suddenly, she says, she felt dizzy.

“They told me they would take me to a hospital but I ended up in a salon where I got a makeover and sexy clothes. There they threatened to kill me and my daughter if I didn’t do what they told me.”

Nirugutta had been forced into prostitution, but didn’t have to endure for long: “They hid about 25 girls in a secret room during a raid [in 2011].

It was extremely hot and we could barely breathe, so a girl began to scream and the police found us.”

Nirugutta ended up in prison after the “madam” of the brothel accused her of trafficking women. Later, she was admitted with her daughter into a special correctional centre, where she met dozens of trafficked women.

They stayed there until 2013, when she was able to prove her innocence.

“I couldn’t return to Chintapalli because I had no money. I asked a policeman to help me find a job so I could save for a few months and return with some money and no one would suspect anything. My family had thought I was dead,” says Nirugutta, who has received legal assistance from the Gulabi Gang.

Her story is shared by thousands of women across the country. A poll of 370 gender specialists conducted in 2012 revealed that India is the worst country in the group of G20 nations in which to be a woman: 56,000 women die every year giving birth; the female literacy rate is 55 per cent compared with 77 per cent for males; on average, women earn 62 per cent of a man’s wage; and 57 per cent of male teenagers – 52 per cent in the case of girls – consider it acceptable to beat their wife.

If that weren’t enough, their lack of access to political power is clear in parliament, where only 11 per cent of MPs are women.

Despite the statistics, Pal is optimistic and says the situation is changing, “especially since Jyoti Singh was raped in Delhi”.

Jyoti Singh Pandey was a 23-year-old physiotherapy student who, on the night of December 16, 2012, was gang-raped, beaten and thrown off a moving bus. Having suffered injuries to her abdomen, intestines and genitals, she died in a Singapore hospital on December 29 that year.

“Her case has been a turning point in the perception of gender violence in society,” says Pal.

“The brutality of the case and the fact it took place in the capital have made many people aware of the seriousness of the situation,” says Reddy.

“We believe that her death was not in vain and that it may have served as a catalyst for Indian women to get the respect they deserve.

“However, we are still far from achieving that.”