Six poor and semi-educated women living in Chittoor district in Tirupathy gather, write, edit, lay out, print, publish and distribute a newspaper in Telugu all by themselves. Picking and laying out photographs, running a cartoon strip - by one member of the staff who happens to be a good artist - are also all par for the course these young women have set themselves. Their lives, they say, have changed since they began to work on the Navodayam project, aimed at empowering women through communication. Their efforts to take the newspaper to the villages, part of the World Bank's Poverty Alleviation Programme, began in August 2001 and has turned some important pages in development since then.
The four major aims Navodayam has laid out for itself are (a) to amplify the voice of the rural poor, (b) to put rural women in charge of news coverage, (c) to place information within the reach of the rural poor, and (d) to adapt journalism as a tool for empowerment of women. "Covering and reporting news is an act of empowerment," says Manjula, who edits the newsletter. "It began as a quarterly newsletter but with rising demand we increased the periodicity to a monthly, and 31 issues have come out by the end of 2005." They printed only 750 copies for the inaugural issue. Today, nearly 30,000 copies are printed, and all are sold out. 80 reporters, all of them from poor families settled in rural areas, have learnt reporting, writing, editing and layout since the newsletter came out. At present, Navodayam has 12 working reporters and 20 contributors. Navodayam's area of news reporting initially covered 10 mandals in Chittoor but now it covers the entire district.
Though the project is totally sponsored by the government, the women involved with the newsletter have been able to retain their independence and there is no editorial interference from the government. Strangely, however, support has been less forthcoming from fellow professionals in the media itself.
"I am aggrieved to say that the Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists has been denying membership to Navodayam because the APWJ feels that this is a government paper, never mind how much we insist that we are independent in every way, the sponsorship from the government notwithstanding," laments Manjula. "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," she informs.
Mallika, a member of the core group of six women, says that they have also received death threats for covering issues directly dealing with local women from vested interests who do not want Navodayam to deal with the problems of local 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. For example, we went to cover four cases of the rape of four girls. We discovered that in one of these, a 14-year-old girl had been raped by a 50-year-old man and had left school for the social stigma the rape created. We not only brought pressure on the perpetrator but also persuaded the girl to get back to school," recounts Mallika.
Since the electronic media takes its own time to reach the village population, Navodayam has trained two of its workers in videography and video documentation in a six-week training programme. They made a video film on child marriage rampant in some pockets and showed this to the villagers. They once did a survey of four child marriages. In one of these, the girl was just five years old and her husband died a month after the marriage. This was included in the video film and they showed it to the local collector. Women of self-help groups who have taken their children out of school to join in the long queue of child labour have been persuaded by the Navodayam women to bring the children back from their labour camps and put them back to school.
"We publish at least one article on HIV-AIDS-related issues every month. But all this does not necessarily mean that our focus is on problems alone. We also focus on positive and inspiring stories. One such story was on the achievements and successes of single women," adds Mallika. These women also interview old men and women to highlight traditional practices in life, health, food, child-birth practices and so on that are now forgotten in order to remain rooted to the culture "because the electronic media in general does not bother about the rural population much," quips Manjula.
The women have faced and overcome problems from the liquor lobby, from defaulters of government loan schemes, and sometimes even from government officials. Five of the six women who man the editorial board of Navodayam are going to graduate from Open University. Some of them also string for mainstream publications in Andhra Pradesh and self-help groups have come to rely on Navodayam as a trustworthy partner in conflict-resolution. Navodayam has received the prestigious Best Rural Women Journalists Award for 2005 from the Data News Features at Hyderabad. The Navodayam model has now been emulated by Self-Help Groups and eight newsletters have started in eight different districts of Andhra Pradesh. Today, 30,000 Self-Help Groups subscribe to Navodayam and its readership extends to a staggering three lakhs.
The work is divided into two segments. For 20 days, the women and their reporting team are out collecting and gathering news, conducting interviews and surveys and distributing issues of Navodayam. The remaining 10 days are spent in the office now equipped with a computerized outfit laying out, editing, proof-reading, page-making, printing the paper and getting it ready for distribution. Each of the six core women draw a monthly salary of Rs.1500 which is paltry by urban standards but not when compared to their earlier economic state. Manjula says that she was allergic to reading the newspaper. Then she became part of Navodayam's reporting team and in nine months, she became the editor of the paper. Her husband initially opposed her decision to become a journalist. "I made him sit at one of our meetings from morning till night and that convinced him," says Manjula. He passed away soon after and she now is a single mother with children to be taken care of and a newsletter to edit.
"I feel very proud when I realize that I have made a difference to the lives of lakhs of women in my district. I am very happy being a journalist and do not want to do anything else," she sums up. Mallika adds that although she is not educated, or city-bred or sophisticated or can speak English, she has taken up been quite successful as a journalist, taking up investigative stories that have been commented and acted upon by local district collectors. She has been at the receiving end of death threats, she notes. But having overcome these obstacles has led her to believe in herself and in the journalism she can do. "In fact, it is very easy," she adds modestly.