Cheryl Lynch-Gardner and the Red Brigade

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Blitz Martial Arts Magazine, Vol.28, No.11, November 2014

“The problem in India is not that there are rapists,” says Cheryl Lynch-Gardner, co-founder of Budo-Ryu Kempo. “[Here in Australia there are] Rape Crisis Centers, counseling; there is a system. There’s no damn system over there.”

Cheryl’s involvement in the martial arts has led to her from Sydney’s western suburbs, halfway around the world to teach self-defense to Indian women. It seems like a practical fix for a universal problem, but in the macro, Cheryl’s work is part of a widespread effort to turn the tides of history and culture, one person at a time.

“I’ve been [training in] martial arts since school,” she says. “I started in Judo, thirty-five years ago. I started in kempo in the early seventies. I felt very much at-home there; there’s so much emphasis on the self-defense side. It’s good for everyone, I think. I’m not interested in going ten rounds with someone.”

Cheryl’s dedication to kempo has been a function of her everyday life.

“Now, I teach and it just amazes me that I stayed with something for so long. I’ve taken up lots of things, but martial arts [training] is something I have stuck with. There’s so many benefits in your life.”

While often referred to as a branch of karate, kempo is more correctly defined as a system which brings together different aspects of a variety of arts which include strikes, circular blocks, locks, holds and joint breaks.

Kempo doesn’t teach students to attack, nor does it teach its students to enter a prolonged contest with an adversary. A kempo practitioner seeks to end a hostile encounter as swiftly and conclusively as possible.

“We took kata from Goju Ryu, and we teach kempo, also,” says husband Hugh, explaining the basis of Budo Ryu. The self-defense side of things constitutes a large part of the curriculum. “Cheryl is bloody good at self-defense; when she gets going, she’s absolutely savage. Bottom line – we don’t teach anything which doesn’t work.”

Hugh is a good yardstick, given that he is well over six feet tall and outweighs Cheryl significantly. “If it doesn’t work against me, then we don’t teach it. It’s as simple as that.”

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Gary Palmer, state director of the National All Styles tournament, has known both Cheryl and Hugh because of their involvement with the tournament over the long-term.

“I’m impressed with the way they go about things,” says Gary. “The feeling she has for her students; the feeling she has for her club. She conducts herself very well. They [Budo Ryu Kempo] have been around for decades now. After the tournaments, I also learned about the work she was doing with the Red Brigade in India.

“I wanted to qualify my young black belts – twenty, twenty-one year olds – in first-aid. I asked her about it and next thing, she’s organized it. She offered the use of her hall and on the day, there were fourteen or fifteen senior guys from her dojo at the course. It was a fantastic day. I asked her, ‘point me in right direction’, and she made it happen.

“Cheryl is a quiet achiever,” he adds. “She’s not looking for recognition, and here they are, doing some good stuff. Her work with the Red Brigade is a story that needs to be told.”

Cheryl’s introduction to the rape crisis in India, and the Red Brigade in Lucknow that has arisen to combat it, came to her attention while she sat in the safety and comfort of her lounge room.

“The Red Brigade featured on Foreign Correspondent. I watched the segment, and then contacted the founder, Usha Vishwakarma, over Facebook. I asked my daughter Loren if she wanted to go visit, so we did. We had such a good time! We used the local Kung Fu academy [to run a self-defense course]. They gave us it to us for free.

“Last year, we did at least four sessions there. Then, we got some friends at a school which had air-conditioning, which made a big difference. We went there into a big auditorium and the teachers asked us if we would teach the girls. Six-hundred girls joined in on about three minutes’ notice. It was great; awesome. They all participated.”

Photo by Robins Joseph

Photo by Robins Joseph

“Mum’s a fantastic instructor,” says Loren Lynch-Gardner. “She’s tough, loud and empathetic. She will make you learn. If you don’t understand, she will spend the time to make sure you get it inside and out and she takes that attitude with each of her students.”

The skills taught are straight from Budo-Ryu kempo.

“We teach them how to get out of a lot of holds; then, there are lots of different holds [to apply], arm bars, wrist locks and elbow and knee strikes. Finally, there are a series of take downs and throws.”

“The premise of the thing is that walking down the street is a nightmare,” says Cheryl. “They’re not doing anything we would consider putting them at risk, apart from doing what they need to do.”

The biggest obstacle is overcoming the girl’s culturally-programmed submissiveness.

“We’re trying to get the timidity out of them. They [the girls] know it’s wrong, but trying to change the mindset is quite a challenge.”

The state of preparedness varies amongst the women she trains.

“Many of the girls have gone so far; the girls who have become members of the Red Brigade are most of the way there. In a self-defence class, there’s always someone who’s got the balls for it,” she says. “Some girls are never going to do it. Some will do it, no matter what.”

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The biggest fallacy she has to combat is the belief that learning self defence techniques will solve all their problems.

“[They think that] Martial arts is magic; it’ll work. The truth is that it doesn’t work for anybody unless you make it work. I tell them that the biggest room in the world is the room for improvement. You need to get better at what you’re doing.”

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A good part of effective self-defence begins before physical contact. The best solution is to avoid being selected as a potential target.

“We teach the importance of making a lot of noise and standing up for yourself,” Cheryl says. “Things like body language, keeping your eyes up and walking with intent, trying not to look like a victim.”

“The seminars generally run for a couple of hours,” she says, “depending on the heat. We take them through a lot of grabs and holds, and then into explosive stuff, like spinning out with elbows and knees. We also work on the mental aspect.”

The biggest hurdle in self-defense is bridging the gap between the intention and the action, which is one of the principal skills Cheryl focuses on.

“They need to get over the ‘meek and mild”, she says. “[Indian women] understand they are conditioned as a third of a race; they are conditioned to being quiet and keeping quiet. In the Red Brigade, they know that doesn’t work. They know they have to do something.”

“Lucknow is not a tourist destination, so a lot of their English isn’t great,” says Loren. “We teach them to be loud; they’re not supposed to yell as members of a lower caste. We try to teach them to value themselves as humans, not just as women.”

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The problem runs even deeper than social position.

“Every girl has been abused in some way. They believed it was the way it was and that nothing would ever change. When we started to talk to Usha about what can be changed… she believes she can achieve the change she wants. Once we pushed that [with the students], they really started to respond.”

“It’s all about attitude,” Cheryl adds. “Born good fighters, they’ve got it. They can do it because they believe in themselves. Others, with all the training in the world, won’t. As an instructor, you have to help them find that inner voice; find something in them they respond to.”

Sometimes, the greatest obstacle is overcoming the language barrier.

“That is the difficult thing! They have limited English, but with a bit of sign language and push and shove, we eventually get there.”

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“We’ve been to India seven times,” says Hugh. “Originally, we were contacted by a fellow in Bangalore and we went to investigate. It seemed good at the time, but it didn’t work out. As a result, we severed connections.”

That contact proved to be fruitful, however, in that it developed a relationship with a catholic priest named Father Johnson.

“Father Johnson is involved in lots of schools,” says Cheryl. “He had done Shotokan karate as a child and loved martial arts. He asked us to teach Budo Ryu as part of the syllabus in some of his schools.

“Father Johnson does so much for everybody,” she says. “He’s done so many courses; he’s travelled the world and is very knowledgeable. And trustworthy – you need trustworthy. If you don’t have that in India, odds-on you get cheated, stabbed and left for dead.”

Cheryl and Hugh’s experience of India has changed over the years they have been visiting.

“It has changed enormously since I first went in the seventies,” says Cheryl. “Our first major trip was pretty scary at times. Me and my husband had body-guards. It’s not as bad now. When I was there in 2006, we noticed there were not as many beggars in Delhi.

“After the Commonwealth Games [the government had] moved the beggars on somehow. There [are] a lot of things they do that worry you. You go to an airport where it’s high-security and they’re pointing guns at you all the time. It’s concerning, but you get over it.”

“Mum spent a lot of time preparing me,” says Loren. “It’s loud, noisy, and people touch you. When I got off the plane… I loved it! It’s busy… insane! You do meet people with no social conduct skills, but there are people like that everywhere. The problem is probably greater there because there are a lot more people there than there are here. [But] as a whole, I loved it.”

“Everything in India is like going back in time,” says Cheryl, “But it’s changing. It has changed enormously in the time I’ve been visiting. I was bought up with the belief that India was terrible; starving, poor, and so on. But now, there’s an emerging middle class. What you really notice is the gap between rich and poor. You see these magnificent homes, with a shack next door.”

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Just as economic conditions are changing, social attitudes are shifting as well.

“The kids that are coming through are the future of India. They have great attitudes. Attitudes that perpetuate a culture of women being second-class are not the attitudes of kids today. Especially if they have an education. But it’s hard to change a lot by talking. They don’t get any response. If you see footage of any kind of demonstrations about violence against women, you see people wearing the red [in support of the Red Brigade].

The need for the Red Brigade and the circumstances that inspired it are horrifying.

“Girls are not valued enough [in Indian culture]. They can’t work as well as a bloke, and baby girls are murdered. They are often buried alive, just to get rid of them. As a result, there are too many men, and not enough women. Women don’t have the same rights. The caste system is supposed to be illegal, but one of first questions the police will ask is, ‘What caste are you?’ People from the lower caste can’t do anything about it.”

Being a member of the lower caste brings a host of problems. Loren says that,

“The lower caste in Lucknow live in a shanty town with no running water. [As a consequence] they go out to use the amenities at night, and that’s when they are attacked.”

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“There was an incident quite recently where two twelve- or thirteen-year-old girls went to go out to the bathroom and were taken by a gang of boys,” says Cheryl. “Their father sent their brother to look for them, and a boy came out with a home-made gun and scared him off. He went back home and got his father and they came back to find both little girls hanging from a mango tree. That terrible rape in Delhi was the one thing that got publicity. The reality is that it happens all the time.”

It seems the problem isn’t confined to the perpetrators.

“If you’re raped in India, ‘protecting’ you means that your face can’t be shown in the newspapers. And they can’t use your proper name. A friend [of a rape victim] told a newspaper that it took police forty-five minutes to get them to a hospital. Then, the police charged her friend for saying her name publicly.

“Police and first-responders in the countryside are much worse; they are heartless morons. Often, they don’t take the body to the morgue. There was a rape not too long ago of a woman who was well-known in her village; she [was quite senior]. She reported her rape and was lured into a field at night and decapitated. The first-responders to the incident took her little children to identify the body.”

“You’re also dealing with things like acid attacks. If someone doesn’t want to marry you, or you don’t want to go out with them, they throw acid in your face. The government are just bringing in restrictions on the sale of acid now. A woman with an eighteen-month-old boy who was pregnant again, her husband and his brother threw acid on her and killed her. Usha took them in, and now she’s caring for the eighteen-month old child.”

“The problem grows because it’s ignored,” says Loren, “And nothing seems to work unless you’re a member of the upper caste.”

All this transpires in a country of an estimated 1.27 billion people which has one single rape crisis center to tackle the problem. It was in this environment that Usha Vishwakarma founded the Red Brigade.

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Vishwakarma on the streets of Lucknow

 

“I was harassed by a colleague when I was seventeen,” says Vishwakarma. After reporting the incident to her superiors, she was fired. “I organized a gender workshop in 2010. In this programme, fifty-two out of fifty-three girls said they were [subject to] sexual violence by their brothers, fathers and other family members. We aren’t safe in our homes,” she says.

Usha believes that sexual violence is a symptom of profound social inequality.

“Patriarchy and gender discrimination is the main cause; women are second-class citizens [in Indian society]. Also, the law is flexible. Women also suffer from a lack of awareness in terms of how to address violence – and discrimination – when it occurs.”

At present, Usha runs the operation from her home, housing victims under her own roof. The Red Brigade are recognizable by the shalwar kameez they wear (a kind of loose-fitting pantsuit) in red and black, colours which evoke both warning and danger.

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“We are working here to raise awareness of girls in childhood.” Vishwakarma, a former teacher, has also founded a school to create a safe environment to foster students and the kind of attitudes that will turn the tide. Part of this is addressing gender discrimination with young men.

“We are also fighting the government to provide better law and order, and making sure of fast justice.” Self-defense is the final feature of their mandate. Self-defense skill increases a woman’s chances of avoiding assault, but also affects her mental attitude. “It’s about making girls brave; believing they can do anything.”

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Violence also prevents many girls from going to school and receiving the education which will ultimately empower them. For that reason, members of the Red Brigade often escort young girls to and from school.

The next step for the Red Brigade is to develop their own school of self-defence instruction.

“That’s what we’re working on,” says Cheryl. “There have been other people going over, putting on seminars. I have letter from the Red Brigade that says they want to work with us more.” Cheryl will begin by raising Usha Vishwakarma’s qualifications. “Usha is coming with me to Budo Ryu headquarters over there. I want to be able to give her the qualifications to be an instructor of self-defence and kempo.”

“Self-defense is a band aid, but when there’s no law or agency protecting you, you have to learn.” On the subject of making a difference, Cheryl speaks plainly. “You’ve always got to try. So many people have the chance, but they don’t do anything. If you don’t try, you’re as bad as everybody else.”

Cheryl is visiting India again in November, to teach at the largest school in the world.

“City Montessori School in Lucknow, according to the 2010 Guinness Book of Records, is the largest school, in terms of students, in the world. It has approximately 39,437 students. I’m used to a thousand at a time, but that’s a lot of people!”

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Working with the Red Brigade had broadened Cheryl’s own ideas about effective self-defence.

“Avoid crowds,” she says. “Also, it’s very important to observe things.”

The experience of travelling to India and participating in life is another benefit of involvement.

“We took a whole lot of kids over there and they stayed at private school and had a cultural exchange. The Aussie kids got to live like Indian kids. Our kids didn’t go near TV while they were there… [they were too] busy having a good time and learning about India. The differences and similarities.”  

It makes for quite a story, the notion that a woman from Sydney’s western suburbs saw something on television that made her reach out via Facebook and next thing, she’s travelling across the world to an entirely foreign country and using her life skills to make a difference. Gary Palmer sums it up quite succinctly.

“There’s a growing need for self-defense, and she’s answering it. India is a country screaming out for action to be taken, and a woman from Sydney’s western suburbs is doing it.”

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