Meet the all-women team that won a global award for online activism
Lakshmi Sharma, 27 is a final year Bachelor of Arts student in Sitamarhi, Bihar. In 2010, while working for a mahila samiti at Chitrakoot, she applied for the job of a reporter. Like most other girls in the village, she had completed her basic education during childhood, but had not worked anywhere before and was surprised when after a general interview, she was selected. “I was very hesitant to join because it was quite astounding for a woman to become a journalist in my village. My first question was from where would I get news and why would people talk to me about anything at all?” says Sharma who was trained for seven days to develop writing and photography skills, before being assigned with seasoned reporters for three months to understand the process.
Sharma is one among many such rural women journalists who constitute the team of Khabar Lahariya, a rural newspaper which reaches more than 600 villages in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar every week. It began as a Bundeli (a dialect of Hindi) newspaper in 2002 and now has editions in Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Hindustani and Bajjika. It is a newspaper run entirely by women editors, reporters and designers.
Since it caters exclusively to a rural audience, the kind of stories carried are very different compared to what is covered by the mainstream media. “We have dedicated pages covering gram panchayats, kasbas, and women’s issues,” says Meera Devi from Chitrakoot who has been part of the Khabar Lahariya team since 2006. Devi joined the newspaper as she needed money after marriage to complete her graduation course. “It was a different and unconventional challenge. I knew it would be very difficult to manage such an alien job while taking care of my kids and household affairs, but I decided to give it a shot,” said Meera who has now completed her Masters degree in Political Science too.
Sharma recalls her first story, which involved a dispute between a farmer and a landlord over a cow. “Both of them were quite convincing with regards to their claims. The young calf was used to resolve the matter as it went to the farmer when left free. It made for a wonderful story,” she said. However, there are a number of other stories with graver implications that these women pursue with equal zeal. Guddi Kumari, another journalist in Sharma’s team decided to explore the issue of a primary school in her area which was shut since the past two years. The only teacher teaching in the school had left and none of the authorities bothered to replace her. “I kept writing stories about the several implications due to lack of education and pestering the village pradhan to remedy the issue,” she says. Today, the school has two teachers and functions regularly.
Although it has recently come into the spotlight of the mainstream media after the Badaun tragedy, rape cases have been a grim reality in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar for quite some time now. “A father raped his 12-year-old daughter in Kamasi village, which is 70 km from my place. When I went there, neither the members of the house nor the neighbourhood were ready to talk to me. I finally found some sources from the police thana and could piece together the story,” says Devi.
In 2013, Khabar Lahariya began its online edition which recently won 'The Bobs (best of online activism) special Global Media Forum award' by Deutshe Welle. “Training women who had never used technology was a challenge. At first, we tried sending them to computer institutes but they learnt nothing in three months as the instructors were too sceptical about their abilities. We realised that the fastest way to teach these women how to operate computers was to demystify the process and allow them to make mistakes, says Shalini Joshi, co-founder of Khabar Lahariya. “Some years back I only knew how to operate a mobile phone. Now I use InDesign software to design pages and also handle the backend of the website,” says Sharma who recently went to Mumbai to learn the Movie Maker software.
After a number of impactful stories from different villages hitherto untouched by mainstream media, the women journalists are not looked at with suspicion or derision anymore. “Now people even call us to give information because they know we want to help. It gives immense satisfaction to know that your work has made a difference,” signs off Sharma.