The Sixth National Conference of the Network of Women in Media - India (NWMI) had just ended in Pune. A young journalist from Mumbai was asked how she had liked her first NWMI meet. "My colleagues in Mumbai say I'm too idealistic because I want to write about rural child education for my newspaper. After this conference I know that there is scope for my kind of journalism," she said, smiling brightly.

This 23-year-old is not the only journalist who's been energised by the NWMI to follow her chosen path. Many women journalists have found their voice - individually and collectively - and many 'kinds of journalism' have got a boost since the NWMI came into being in 2002. In a few years, this collective seems to have facilitated a positive media movement across the country. And it has greatly strengthened the way its members - women media professionals from diverse backgrounds - view themselves and their work.

Despite great diversity in their backgrounds and jobs, NWMI members vouch for the effects that 'a sense of belonging to a community' has had on their work. The network has created a unique space where women journalists meet, online or at local and national meetings, to discuss issues specific to women and the media. Information about opportunities - professional and research oriented - is posted, contacts and friendships are forged.

Not everyone agrees with everyone else on everything, but the door to learning is always open because listening is as important as speaking, if not more, at national and local meetings of the NWMI. While consensus usually emerges on issues at the nucleus of the network, diverse opinions are respected. Besides the exchange of ideas, the network supports an in informal system of mentoring that should have been available at the workplace but, for various reasons, is not.

An NWMI member since its inception, Laxmi Murthy (Associate Editor, Himal Southasian), says journalism, "by its very nature, can be rather isolating, especially for women, who do not belong in the 'old boys club' and hang out at the Press Club. The NWMI provides a platform (at the local and national level) to move beyond isolation - professional as well as personal. Freelancers working out of home, as well as women in a male-dominated media house, seek out like-minded peers - and that is what NWMI is all about."

Susheela Nair, Bangalore based freelance photographer and travel writer, affirms. "I've bonded with more women journalists after joining the Network. As freelancers we tend to work in isolation. We started going to the press club for meetings only because of the network. So much learning happens through the network and we get to know about many opportunities."

Senior journalist and columnist, Kalpana Sharma, who's well known to readers of India Together, says a network like this can improve the quality of work going around "as it gives journalists access to other perspectives, resources and mentors. Ordinarily, these should be available at the workplace. But increasingly, in the highly competitive environment in which we work, there is little cooperation and most journalists have to fend for themselves."

Speaking of issues specific to women in the media, Sharma says, "Problems ... vary greatly depending on the media. For instance, in English print media, women have done well although there is still a glass ceiling at the very top. There are also issues of sexual harassment but on the whole, compared to a couple of decades ago, women face fewer problems. The situation in the Indian language press is different. Here, women have to fight for fair wages, for the right to cover different beats and face some of the same problems as women in the English press. Television journalists have greater opportunities but there have been sporadic reports about sexual harassment."

Credit: Graphic design by Manjula Padmanabhan for NWMI

The background

While researching her book Making News: Women in Journalism, Ammu Joseph, a founder member of the NWMI and also a long-time regular on India Together, met and spoke to over 200 women journalists across languages and locations. There seemed to be a need for a common platform to discuss problems specific to women in the media. To debate on these problems and a possible network, regional workshops were held in Bangalore, Shillong and Jaipur. Women journalists from several towns and cities as also English and other language newspapers, were involved in the network building process, through these workshops.

"... The workshops obviously addressed a felt need. I had scheduled discussions on whether or not there was a need for a national network on the last day of the meeting but in all three regional workshops, participants articulated the need on the very first day!" recalls Joseph. "The workshops went well because they were designed to generate conversations among equals… Each session addressed certain key questions and everyone got an opportunity to share their experiences, thoughts and opinions. This really helped create a sense of collective ownership right from the beginning."

The regional workshops led to the first national meet in Delhi, where the NWMI was born amidst clamorous debates on its name, structure, charter, etc. While some felt that it should be a formal network with office bearers, etc. others favoured "a more egalitarian, collective approach." The rationale behind the latter possibly "emerged from the ideas and ideals of feminism, which questioned structures based on hierarchies of various kinds," says Joseph. The decision taken favoured an informal, hierarchy-free structure, "where responsibility and accountability could be shared and decision-making be based on consensus." "This is not always the most efficient form of organisation but I personally think the benefits outweigh the deficits," she opines.

Laxmi Murthy points out that "the Network does not seek to replace unions," but seeks to complement them. "For instance, the Pune group works closely with the Pune Patrakar Sangh and also has a room in the union office. Working with unions, especially plant unions which tend to be male-dominated is not easy, and women, especially young women, can hardly ever make a breakthrough. Yet, it is crucial to…try to make dents in the overall chauvinism and pressurize unions to take up issues specifically relevant to women journalists (maternity leave, separate toilets, crèches, night-drops, sexual harassment at the workplace etc). But this is…very exhausting! It is for this reason that women, who are also members of the union, find the informal NWMI style of functioning much more conducive to participation".

The collective gains

Ammu Joseph thinks that the greatest gain from a network "is the sense of collective ownership." Though "a few people do have to put in that extra effort (in the background, with not too many members really aware of the individual contribution of considerable time and energy towards the collective endeavour) to get and keep things going. And there are naturally some who enjoy the benefits accruing from the network without giving much in return -- even in terms of regular communication. But I think it's remarkable that so many do take initiative, take on responsibility, etc., on a purely voluntary basis. And I think that's evidence of the feeling that this is something that belongs to everyone, which everyone can help shape and strengthen."

Not everyone agrees with everyone else on everything, but the door to learning is always open at NWMI.

 •  The guarded tongue
 •  Raw deal for women journos

"It's ... wonderful to belong to a supportive community of professional media women - to be able to discuss issues, to be on a similar wavelength, to be outraged by the same events, be able to laugh about the same things (that's vital!)," says Murthy, adding, "Professionally, it's good to be in touch with what's happening, with regard to gender and media. As an editor, I have been able to get in touch with a wide variety of writers through the network. The NWMI is also a unique collaborative space, in a highly competitive field."

Independent journalist, Anjulika Thingnam from Manipur was in the middle of a serious personal and professional crisis when she heard about the NWMI. She came to the 5th national meet in Bangalore, "searching for myself in the midst of all the women there. And I found it in NWMI," she says. Meeting a mixed crowd of journalists from urban and rural areas and interacting with senior members left her feeling, "so energised… My self-esteem was healed". Contacts made and the frequent news and information got through the e-group helped her "be in touch with a larger support group".

"In my opinion, women journalists ... in a small place like Manipur, under the burden of patriarchy, with little knowledge and awareness of the world outside us, need such a support group. In January 2007, I managed to get four of us organised into a small local group," says Thingnam. The Manipur network has offered to host the next national meet "to inspire local women journalists to join the network and come forward without fear." She sees it as a "good opportunity to highlight some of the issues that women, women journalists and the people of Manipur are grappling with everyday - issues of patriarchy, development, conflict, identity ..."

A development media professional and member of NWMI's Bangalore chapter, Shamanathaka Mani says she joined the network as she thought it would help her professionally. "I had expected too much from our group both at the professional and emotional level, but our group is, I think, more heterogeneous than homogeneous." The process of planning activities at the local level is complicated by the presence of "too many decision makers," according to her.

Many others count diversity as the strength of the network, however. Each of the annual meets that has followed the one in Delhi, "... has provided a glimpse of the 'unity in diversity' that characterises the network" opines Ammu Joseph. "Each host network has put its own stamp on the event in terms of collaborations, fund-raising, content, etc. So each meeting has had a slightly different flavour but every one of them has been exciting, stimulating and fulfilling to almost all the participants. Similarly, e-group discussions often reflect divergent opinions on various issues but there has been amazing consensus on vital matters to do with the media, including those to do with gender."

Vidhulata, Editor of monthly magazine Aurath says, "From the day I joined NWMI, my confidence has increased. Being a Hindi journalist, I do have some communication problems but I am sure this can be overcome. I am going to hold a one-day workshop for senior journalists in May or June this year Bhopal so that more women journalists from MP can join the NWMI."

During national meetings, the language barrier is bridged by continual translation, done by members who know the languages concerned. A group of rural journalists from Chittoor district in Andhra Pradesh are conversant only with Telugu. They have been an inspiration to the rest of the network and the subject of many newspaper stories across several languages after each network meeting they've attended. Mostly from marginalised communities, these women handle all aspects of the production and distribution of a magazine, Navodayam. They conduct surveys and report on crime and child marriages. "Ever since we became part of the NWMI, our motivation to do better stories for our magazine has become stronger. We understand the importance of educating our girl children" says Bharathi, from the Navodayam group.

Senior columnist and writer, Sakuntala Narasimhan, says, "Such a collective ... gives women journalists' viewpoints (on sexist reporting, for instance) a stronger voice while protesting sexism in reporting. I got to know about the World Summit at Johannesburg in 2002, through the local network. I was chosen as one of the 4 journalists from India to be sponsored for covering the three-week summit. I filed 9 stories, and it was a great experience gathering so much information on a variety of subjects for use in my columns, interviewing global leaders etc."

Laxmi Murthy points out, "The Network has regularly raised the issue of press freedom and freedom of expression and issued statements. Local chapters have organized activities around the issue - be it the Official Secrets Act, attacks on journalists or writers. The point is ... to give voice in the public domain, to protest against gender-insensitive, casteist, communal activities/statements."

In an increasingly market-driven media climate, the NWMI supports value-driven, gender-balanced journalism. It has proved to be a lifeline for journalists who believe that there's more to the media than news brands.