Seven years ago, many rural newsletters started off as mere communication tools for the women self-help groups. Their purpose was to initiate a dialogue between the women, share information and also, give them an opportunity to voice their opinion. Hand written, hand designed, they were a perfect reflection of women's empowerment in rural Uttar Pradesh. But today, they have emerged as the voice of not just these groups, but also of the villages. Various rural newsletters of Uttar Pradesh not only carry reports of the groups, but also the problems of the villages, their issues and as a bonus, give a peek into the happenings around the world. Some are making their presence felt on the national scene too; Khabar Lehariya has even won the prestigious Chameli Devi Jain award.

The April 2004 issue of the rural newspaper Gunagar of Jaunpur talks about the life of Bhimrao Ambedkar, coinciding with his birth anniversary. The December 2004 issue of Mitra from Oraiyya tries to focus on the problem of the caste biases in the village primary school and even goes ahead to show the issue to the block development officials. The development officials record the copy as an official complaint and take action against the erring school teachers. Several other newsletters like the Purvai of Varanasi, Bhinsaar from Pratapgarh, Dehriya from Sitapur, Bhaiyli from Mathura, Mahila Dakiya (the very first one in the series) from Chitrakoot are also making their mark. Mahila Samakhya, a prominent NGO working for the education and empowerment in Uttar Pradesh, supports these. Nirantar, a support group from New Delhi, supports Khabar Lehariya from Chitrakoot. While some of them are quarterly, others are bi-annual and some are even monthly.

The matters in these newsletters range from local civic problems like conditions of the hand pumps and the kharanjas (brick roads), local social issues like dowry, intoxication, violence against women, and even murders and other crimes. Household tips, gardening tips and details of the latest research are the added features of these newsletters, which are collected by the women themselves.

Women of the Ujala Mahasangh in a meeting to discuss the preparations of the newsletter.

A peek into the newsrooms of these newsletters is an interesting task. The editorial comprises of the Resource Person of the Samakhya centre, the clerk and a few of the sangha women who are literate. Some of them are also involved with the designing aspect, trying to merge the folk designs in the newsletters to give them a better and more rustic look. The news is collected on the basis of the activities of the centre and also, as provided by these women. It is compiled and written on the newspaper or even typed by the women. Then, the print is carried to the printer (who is located as far as 25 to 30 kms away) by the women themselves and selected copies of the newsletter are printed. Every month or every quarter, some 700 to 1000 copies of these newsletters are printed at an estimated cost of around Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,000, which is partially funded by Mahila Samakhya and partially by the women through various income generating activities.

According to the women who are involved in bringing out these newsletters, people have now started coming from all over the village to give details about their problems to be carried in the newspaper. "For us, this is the most effective medium for voicing our problems. We started them to share the knowledge between our sangha, but now, even the villagers have got connected to these newsletters," say Kiran and Sushma of Mahila Samakhya Jaunpur. She cites several examples where villagers have told them about the problems and they have highlighted them in their papers. She adds that since these are the only newsletters which can carry any and every news the villagers flock to them.

People have now started coming from all over the village to give details about their problems to be carried in the newspapers.
Some of the issues which have been highlighted in these newsletters, have ended up bringing about a change in the villages. Once, one of the villagers told the sangha women about his repeated requests to the pradhan to get the only access road to his village repaired. The women noted the case in their newsletter and sent a copy to the Block development officer. Reading the news, the BDO ordered immediate construction of the road. Says Rajumari of Ujala Mahasangh of Mahila Samakhya, "We felt like real reporters, for our story had managed to show an impact. We published the acknowledgement letter from the villagers in an issue of our newsletter."

In another case, the parents of a girl stopped her from going to school. The girl came crying to the sangha workers, and wrote an emotional poem for her parents. "We published the poem in our newsletter and sent a copy of it to her parents. Reading the poem, the girl's parents were convinced about the significance of education for her and did not stop her from going to school," says Varsha of Mahila Samakhya Chitrakoot.

At times, the women have even managed to solve some problems of the village by highlighting them in their newsletters. "There are several cases related to civic problems and cases where women have been harassed. We have sent the copies of the newsletter with the problems to the block level officials, who tries to take quick action based on these reports," says Neelam of Mahila Samakhya Sitapur.

The growth of these newsletters has even amazed those who initiated the entire initiative. Talking about the growth of these newsletters, the Deputy director of Mahila Samakhya, Uttar Pradesh, Dr Kumkum Tripathi feels it is thanks to the dedication and sincere hard work of the women that these newsletters have scaled such heights. "They are a part of our regular publications and come what may, the printing of these newsletters does not stop. We started these newsletters to promote educational initiatives amongst our neo-literates, as they served a perfect medium to bridge the gap between them and knowledge. But after all these years and the success of these newsletters, we are surprised to see that these newsletters have now taken the form of newspapers, which even have a section for world news. What is more, they are not only focusing on problems of women, but those faced by men too."

"It's not only the Sangha women who read the newsletter. Literate menfolk of our village too read the newsletter. Although initially it was tough for us to accept this initiative by the women, but then, we realised that it was a boon for the entire village as well," says Ramkishore Yadav, a village pradhan in Varanasi district. Like Yadav, many other men too shared similar views. For the villagers, the initiative has become an inseparable part of their everyday lives. It is more than a medium of communication for them, a powerful tool that has not only brought in changes in the respective villages but also mobilized the communities in and around these newsletters. These papers, the ones we would normally call 'alternate media', are touching lives in very mainstream ways. (Charkha Features)