How Dalit & Tribal Women From Bundelkhand Are Becoming Firebrand Journalists

Image Credits: Khabar Lahariya, Black Ticket Films

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At a glance, Shivdevi from Banda, Uttar Pradesh might appear like just another village woman, attending to the chores and leading a nondescript life. But one cannot overlook a certain confidence, an unmistakable grit in her demeanour. A notebook and a pen, a camera phone and a dusty satchel together gives out her true identity.

Shivdevi, a young mother driven out of home by her tyrannical in-laws, is actually a journalist – one of the very few women reporters etching an example in a patriarchal rural setting. She scours the rustic roads in her new scooter, unearthing stories of injustice, deprivation and atrocities. Abuse by the local leaders, the nonchalance of the police authorities and the ever-existent apathy of many villagers towards a woman reporter –  nothing stops Shivdevi.

She cannot help but express her gratitude towards Khabar Lahariya – India’s first and only hyperlocal media organisation which is training rural women of Bundelkhand to be journalists.

As a newspaper, Khabar Lahariya was circulated in the Hindi and Bundeli languages, among others, across an 80,000-strong reader base in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Two years ago, they launched their digital avatar, adding a sizeable urban population to their reader base.

Breaking into a male bastion

“Heated discussions over feminism and being a feminist, had to go beyond portraying women in a positive light in a context where they were only ‘bechari’ (helpless) or ‘besharam’ (shameless). It had to be about looking at the use and abuse of power by people, institutions and systems,” briefs Pooja Pande, who handles Partnerships at Khabar Lahariya, explaining why Khabar Lahariya was started in 2002.

Khabar Lahariya

“We wanted to establish the women from Dalit, Muslim, tribal communities as journalists, breaking into a male bastion. Challenges were aplenty. We were told by the district magistrate that Khabar Lahariya was ideal to train these women to make achaar (pickle) and papad,” states the Khabar Lahariya team, highlighting that at those times, making reporters out of these women was beyond imagination for everyone else.

A journey spanning decades

The organisation is operated by a competent all-women team. Editor-In-Chief Meera Jatav is a self-made woman, hailing from the rural hinterlands of Bundelkhand. Khabar Lahariya materialised through the zeal and persistence of Meera and like-minded women, supported by Nirantar, Centre For Gender And Education from Delhi.

 

Khabar Lahariya
Meera Jatav

In 1994, 24-year-old Meera joined as a supervisor with Mahila Samakhya, the women literacy project by the government. Her qualifications stood at 10th Pass back then, which she upscaled to a postgraduate in the course of the next few years.

The women at Mahila Samakhya, supervised by Meera and others, started their own four-page monthly newspaper Mahila Dakiya, which unfortunately was discontinued due to fund constraints. But, it was undoubtedly the precursor to Khabar Lahariya, which soon became a reality when Nirantar stepped in from Delhi to fulfil the journalistic aspirations of these feisty women.

From mistreated wives and mothers to full-time reporters

Shivdevi, whose story we shared in the beginning, is one of the many women reporters from marginalised communities at Khabar Lahariya with equally compelling stories. Resistance from the family, obligations as a mother and above all, the orthodox social set-up comprise only the tip of the iceberg if one tries to analyse the obstacles for these women.

“There are too many firsts altogether. A woman actually had to lift the ghunghat (veil), go into crowded areas, talk to men and work for irregular hours. Families and in-laws oppose all this. On average, five out of every 15 women we trained would stay, rest would drop out mid-way, submitting to the societal pressure,” Kavita Devi, Digital Head of Khabar Lahariya, reveals the reality.

The reporters of Khabar Lahariya are all full-time employees. They earned their independence and respect through sincere persistence for over a decade. Naturally, it raises the question, how?

Pooja answers, “Through word of mouth, social media and NGO networks, we publicise the information that we are hiring in a particular district. Applications are invited, and applicants are shortlisted on the basis of their basic qualifications (10th pass). Marginalised women are given preference.”

“Senior KL members travel to the districts to interview shortlisted candidates: a process that involves talking about their aspirations, family circumstances and testing their confidence, general knowledge and technical aptitude. If we think a woman has it in her, then she is called for training and then an internship in Chitrakoot.”

Impacting some new change every day

Be it caste-based violence or gender atrocities, the gritty women stop at nothing to report the truth. Meeting the police or the district administration is now a cakewalk for them. They have impacted ample social, political and infrastructural improvement in the region. The initial days were difficult, but over the course of 17 years, Khabar Lahariya has earned the trust of the local people. They now reach out to the organisation to report untoward incidents and avail justice.

Moving over the traditional pen and notebook, the women have recently been equipped with smartphones and basic computer knowledge, making their jobs easier and faster.

“Her story makes history”

In eight pages, Khabar Lahariya presents unreported stories across diverse domains, which is popularising the habit of reading newspapers in these regions. In the villages with a low literacy level, the reporters themselves often read out the news aloud to keep people well-informed.

“We would like to expand our geographical reach and add to our reporting strength, in the next three years. So, 100 reporters and 10 million unique visitors,” informs Pooja.

“Her story makes history” – goes the Khabar Lahariya tagline. In a bid to make the subaltern narratives thrive, Khabar Lahariya is striving every day, hoping to popularise rural journalism and in turn empower women throughout India.

Also Read: With Every Parcel Delivery, India’s First ‘Delivery-Women’ Company Is Breaking Gender Norms

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MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

Image Credits: Khabar Lahariya, Black Ticket Films

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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It's not how much we give
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