Rural Women Take to Journalism, Redefine Lives

Shoma A. Chatterji

It’s been ten years since a ‘new dawn’ arose in a district in Andhra Pradesh, when six poor women in Chittoor decided to bring out a newsletter filled with women’s voices and then take it to the villages. They believed that informing rural women who knew nothing, and giving them a voice, was empowerment. From 750 copies, Navodayam is today a monthly magazine with a circulation of 30000, and a readership well past two lakh. From reporting and writing to editing and laying out the pages, it’s all the handiwork of women. Stories drive home pertinent messages, special issues focus on specific subjects, and semi-literate women have been trained to gather news, file copy, even shoot a video. It’s been quite a remarkable initiative that has benefited the marginalised and oppressed communities of Andhra Pradesh.

navodayam magazineNavodayam is the merging of two words – nava, meaning ‘new’ and udayam, meaning ‘dawn’. It is the name of a community magazine that has realised the dreams of hundreds of women of Chittoor District in Andhra Pradesh, run, edited, published, marketed and distributed by women, for women and of women. It realises the democratic spirit laid down in the Indian Constitution. Over time, Navodayam has become a strong link between village women and the government by spreading awareness about official schemes and programmes targeted at women who can benefit from the programmes. At the other end, it informs the government and its agencies about the needs and concerns of the women. The women do not come from sophisticated, affluent and urban backgrounds backed by university degrees. None of them have ever been to a journalism school. Most of them cannot even speak English, leave alone read or write it. But all that has not caused hurdles for their growth. They have taken running the magazine on, as a learning experience, as a commitment and as a career. The Navodayam Project began as part of the World Bank’s Poverty Alleviation Programme. The first issue of the newsletter, aimed at empowering women through communication, called Navodayam, was published on August 15, 2001. The main aim: to take the newspaper to the village. Six poor and semi-educated women living in Chittoor District in Tirupati gathered strength from within themselves to write, edit, lay out, print, publish and distributethe newsletter in Telugu all by themselves. Picking and laying out photographs, and running a cartoon strip done by one member of the staff who happens to be a good artist are all within a day’s work for the gritty young women whose lives have changed since they began the project.
Navodayam was born in the form of a newsletter with the purpose of putting into action‘Information for Empowerment’. The four major aims are to – (a) give ‘voice’ to the rural and poor women, (b) place rural women in charge of news coverage, (c) reach information out to touch, influence and inspire the rural poor, and (d) adapt journalism so that it becomes a tool to empower rural, poor, oppressed and uneducated girls and women. In the process, the six women who began the newsletter have been able to redefine their own lives and look at their involvement with it as a great learning process.
Initially launched as a quarterly newsletter in Telugu with eight pages of printedmatter (the inaugural issue printed only 750 copies), Navodayam today is a powerful, 24-page monthly paper that has grown to 30,000 copies, all of which are sold out. Eighty reporters, all of them from poor families settled in rural areas, have learnt reporting, writing, editing and layout since the newsletter first came out. Navodayam has a readership of 200,000 – that can easily beat the readership figures of some of the leading dailies in Andhra Pradesh. It began with six core women. Today, it has around ten staff reporters and 20 contributors. They have initiated a system of annual subscription. The community coordinators and sanghamitras (village-level activists of the Indira Kranthi Patham programme) motivated self-help groups to pay the subscription. The reporters were instrumental in facilitating annul subscription to the magazine by the line departments and NGOs. The reporters personally approached the line departments in the district and managed to get advertising support for the magazine and the amount contributed to the corpus fund. The advertisement rates were worked out beforehand by the team.
“Our reporters are semi-literate and poor women from the villages. They have undergone training in newsgathering and filing copy. We have also picked out the artists among them. We have put them through basic training in journalism that has improved their language, writing and editing skills. They have been so effective that they have acquired the courage and integrity needed to deal with the consequences of conscientious reporting and critical writing,” informs Manjula, who began her career as editor of Navodayam.
Mallika, one of the first six and a member of the core group, says that they would receive death threats for covering issues directly dealing with local women, from vested interests who do not want Navodayam to deal with the problems of the women. “We bring out a special issue on the basis of a survey we conduct ourselves. We publish our findings in the form of a report in an issue. We also approach the local collector, ask him for his views and publish his side of the story as well. In this way, we move one step ahead of news per se. For example, we went to cover four cases of rape, of four girls. We discovered that in one case, a 14-year-old girl had been raped by a 50-year-old man and she had left school because of the social stigma. We not only brought pressure on the perpetrator but also persuaded the girl to get back to school,” recounts Mallika.
The technical logistics and financial issues of publishing the magazine is taken care of by a core committee formed from within the reporters’ pool, which manages the total budget. The Zilla Samakhya (district-level federation of self-help groups) was requested to provide its services to help the ongoing publication, distribution and sales of the magazine. Nine members formed the Navodayam Planning Commission – six were reporters and three representatives of the Zilla Samakhya.  The president is the editor of Navodayam. The reporters began networking with regional newspapers to gain training and experience as professional journalists. Reporters are encouraged to contribute issue-specific features, reports and articles linked to a particular area of the district. For example, if alcoholism is rampant in one area, there is a detailed piece on the impact of alcoholism on the family and ways to resolve the problem.
“There was one touching case of a woman who committed suicide and we brought this to public view by writing about it. It happened because the woman had taken a loan from an NGO that offered micro loans to rural women. But the woman did not know anything about the interest payable. So, when she saw the interest that had accumulated after some time, she was shocked and this drove her to suicide. Our aim was to drive home the point that since village women were illiterate, all details needed to be spelt out for them in the future so that such tragic cases did not happen again,” Manjula elaborates.
In January 2010, Navodayam brought out a special issue against child marriage to coincide with the Shivaratri Festival. “The idea was to spread awareness among people about the evils of child marriage. The special issue carried comparative interviews of women married off as children and interviews with women whose marriages were stopped when they were kids and now were happier for the stoppage,” says Manjula. Why Shivaratri? Villagers of Srikalahasti in Chittoor District believe that the night is auspicious for giving away the girl-child in marriage because they last longer than normal marriages and it is the night of Devudu Pelli (God’s Marriage). It is an age-old custom associated with the festivities surrounding Shivaratri. Around 2000 marriages are performed in February of which, many are child brides and grooms putting a stop to the girls’ schooling.
Navodayam has trained seven women over a ten-month long span in video journalism. The trained video journalists have made over 100 documentary films and are even providing video clips to major television networks, a source of revenue for them. A video film on child marriage was shown across villages where child marriage was rampant. The women of Navodayam have persuaded women of self-help groups to put the children they had taken out of schools to join the growing mass of child labour, back to school. In addition, each woman who subscribes to the magazine sees to it that every member of her family also reads it.
The Navodayam women are convinced that their poor, marginalised and oppressed readers, have gathered the courage and faith to talk freely about personal problems, about health, domestic violence, the pressure to get their small girls out of school and married off, family peace being threatened by chronic alcoholism among the men and so on. The Navodayam women often intervene personally to settle such disputes and resolve some of the problems. They then narrate their success stories through the magazine, to inspire and encourage other women to come forward and discuss their problems, too.
Navodayam has also spread its journalistic wings towards a revival of cultural roots that are getting lost to time and modernistic interventions such as the cinema, television and so on. Journalists visit senior people in the villages to collect oral cultural forms of performance such as traditional songs, proverbs, grandmother ’s tales, and so on and publish them in the magazine to inform, educate and entertain the readers of the younger generation. The Navodayam Community Magazine (Telugu) won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Special Jury Award for 2009. It has been a source of inspiration for similar media initiatives like radio and films.

The writer is a freelance journalist, author and film  scholar based in Kolkata. She has authored 17 books and contributed to many edited compilations on cinema, family and gender. Courtesy: Vidura