There are no road maps, and often no water or electricity, and rarely do many of the remote areas in the rural north of India ever see a postman. But a collective of rural women reporters is reaching these areas to investigate issues that affect local communities.
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Started in 2002, Khabar Lahariya – or News Waves – is a rural women-run local newspaper that shines a light on rural issues with a feminist perspective. The collective consists of nearly 40 women and the newspaper covers nine districts in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
It is distributed in nearly 600 villages weekly, reaching an estimated readership of 80,000 people. It is printed in the rural dialects spoken in the region: Hindi, Bundeli, Bhojpuri and Awadhi. The women are trained by a team of senior journalists enabling them to write, edit, produce, distribute and market the newspaper.
Khabar Lahariya reports on issues of local governance. It works to ensure that the government plans for the rural poor are implemented and also monitors the public money spending for rural development. It is making the local authorities accountable for their actions or lack thereof. And the newspaper’s award-winning reportage and investigations have drastically improved the lives of the people.
“There were and are still hardly any women in the media in India. The (local) newspapers had very little local content and women’s issues did not feature in the papers, and if they did, they were written in a manner that was quite problematic,” said Shalini Joshi, co-founder of Khabar Lahariya.
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At the beginning, the women found it quite challenging to put together the reporting team, “We work with women from some of the most marginalized communities, women who have never worked before. So, to work in a very public domain – interacting with various people, the administration, the village community, officials, going to new areas, working at odd hours – that has always been a challenge,” Joshi explained.
Kavita Devi, co-founder and a digital editor, echoed Joshi’s viewpoint. According to Devi, the challenges of being a woman reporter are manifold and the patriarchal mindset is one of the hardest to deal with. “Most households aren’t supportive of women stepping outside of their homes and, as a result, because of family pressure we lose many reporters in a very short span of time,” said Devi. “This work is not for the faint-hearted, people can often resort to using foul language, one might receive death threats.”
In 2011, Khabar Lahariya conducted an educational survey in one of the districts in rural Uttar Pradesh, where schools had been shut down for several years. But once the news reached the Education Ministry, the local education department couldn’t ignore the issue. Since they expose atrocities like abuses toward women, issues faced by the Dalit community — the lowest caste in India — and local corruption scandals, affected parties often threaten to close them down.
“No media wants to cover Dalit issues. Also, being from the community, we can understand the women’s issues in the Dalit community with much more depth, I don’t think that other media will be able to understand those issues the same way,” said Devi.
Disha Mullick, another co-founder, finds a clear distinction in the way Khabar Lahariya reports news compared to other local media, “We speak to the sources of news that other media might not speak to, so for instance, if we are doing an interview with a political candidate, we might speak to a lot of women about that candidate or Dalits and farmers about that candidate which mainstream media wouldn’t do.” she said.
“We are clear that we want a certain voice, the voice of a rural marginalized Dalit woman (or) a Muslim woman. These voices are not visible in the media, you don’t hear them, you don’t see them, you don’t read their bylines. We think it’s important that the media narrative is informed by the voices of women on the margins,” said Mullick.
Devi never went to school as a child and was married at age 12. A small nonprofit at the time encouraged girls and women to read and write. “I knew how my name sounded but when I learned to write, I liked it even more. While helping my parents at the farm, I’d practice writing words over mud with a stick,” she said. Her interest in learning grew stronger and defying her father, she decided to enroll in school.
“I was the oldest when I joined fifth class (high school), other students would often make fun of me. I struggled a lot and money was a huge issue, but I persisted,” said Devi. Before joining Khabar Lahariya, she had earned a master’s degree in political science from a local college in the Banda district of Uttar Pradesh. Inspired by her success, her family sent three of her younger sisters to school.
The selection process for reporters requires that the applicant has an ability to work independently, basic literacy skills, a willingness to travel and to commit to work in a certain area for a certain time. After the interview process, there’s a basic journalism training program which includes how to get the news, who can be the sources, how to verify sources, camera-related training and then working in the field.
“Reporters are very involved in actually planning and covering the news that they shoot every day. So the planning and structuring of the news happens at the district level, which is a very decentralized model of news production,” said Mullick.
A few years ago, women in one of the rural districts in Uttar Pradesh reported about a corrupt bank official in the area who wouldn’t dispense the widow pension as part of the government plan. Khabar Lahariya verified the news and local officials were notified, but before the news went to print the manager came running to Devi, begging her not to publish it and offering a bribe. Devi refused. “We will publish the news. People need to know the truth,” she said. “We report both sides of the story, something we’ve been taught as part of practicing ethical journalism.”
The newspaper went digital nearly seven months ago, enabling it to have wider reach and more comprehensive coverage. The website is a similar format as its print counterpart as the online content is also in local dialects. Apart from the daily updates, they also curate "best of" editions.
“All reporters have mobiles and they shoot and get all the news on their phones. The editors edit it and publish the news on a daily basis. Sharing the news via videos and images makes it more believable,” said Devi who manages the team of reporters.
They’ve recently started recording podcasts on issues of youth and sexuality considered taboo. “We are trying to open up space for young people to open up. Also, (we are) trying to provide a range of local media to the audience,” said Mullick.
Khabar Lahariya is part of a public charitable trust called the Women Media and News Trust and is run through grants. They don’t take political advertising and when it comes to big corporations or agencies, they do a case by case analysis, discussing certain parameters like whether the organization has ethical practices, for example. With a monthly budget of about US$19,460, Khabar Lahariya manages to break even.
Devi faced many challenges, but defying all societal norms, she decided not to give up. “This is my life now. I never thought I could be a journalist. But now, being in the field for nearly 15 years, I can’t think of doing anything else but journalism,” she added.