By Subhajit Banerjee
In India, where the media coverage around women and gender is often limited to discussions of rape and women’s bodies, a handful of women-led initiatives are trying to broaden the conversation. These initiatives range from empowering rural women to speak truth to power, to making gender part of the policy-making discussion, to helping people on Twitter engage in the feminist discourse. Taking advantage of the rapid growth of mobile internet and social media, these efforts are generating new conversations around women and gender for a new India.
Here is how three journalistic outlets are making change.
“We need the recognition that this is the new conversation of our time. Gender needs to inform many aspects of our society and policy.” -Anubha Bhonsle
One of the few initiatives to focus solely on rural women, Khabar Lahariya started as a weekly printed newspaper in 2002. Today, it is a social media and video-fueled independent news outlet, funded by organizations including Tata Trusts and the United Nations Democracy Fund. Its three key aims are to produce local, independent content, bring a feminist voice to local media and to establish women as journalists in small towns and villages.
The geographic target is Bundelkhand, a remote and rocky region in central India distributed between the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, where Khabar Lahariya has its main field office in the district of Chitrakoot.
“We go into the district and recruit local women via non-government organization networks and word of mouth. They are then put into a rigorous three-month journalism training program,” explains Disha Mullick, Khabar Lahariya’s director of strategy.
During training, women learn journalistic skills and gain tools to deal with the daily challenges of reporting.
“There are few women in rural media, [so] holding people in power to account is difficult and overall it’s still not considered right for women to be out and about reporting,” says Mullick. New reporters often accompany their more experienced colleagues on assignments to learn the ropes, and a Whatsapp group connects them so they have a network to fall back on in case of danger.
Khabar Lahariya began life as a field program of Nirantar, a Delhi-based NGO, and evolved into a broadsheet run by women. At its peak it had six language editions in the local dialects of six districts reaching 80,000 people, but distribution in rural areas was a challenge. “We tried many things, including reporters themselves distributing the paper to 300-400 households and piggybacking on the networks of bigger newspapers. But it didn’t really work,” says Mullick.
Then, in 2015, the team noticed a significant number of people looking at its Facebook page through the social platform’s analytics tool, which came as a surprise given the economic situation of Bundelkhand. By experimenting with digital content and video, they were quickly able to reach 50,000 people, including more women — up to 30% of its Facebook audience is women, compared to the one percent it reached with print. “We had strong editorial anchoring, a voice that was completely different and we knew what worked as rural content. Only the medium changed,” says Mullick. So in June 2016, Khabar Lahariya — by then a team of 25 journalists — went digital-first.
The Uttar Pradesh elections in March 2017, one of the biggest elections India had seen in recent times, helped the outlet establish itself while learning key lessons. “It was a game-changer in many ways,” Mullick recalls. “Politics is hard to cover for women and our journalists learned on the job. We went from a weekly newspaper perceived as a ‘cute’ or exotic experiment to a hard news outlet reporting five to six stories every day.”
Next up will be a renewed focus on sustainability, distribution platforms and legacy. Khabar Lahariya wants to set up a micro-donation corpus for its well wishers to contribute in a more formal way towards a membership. After Facebook, Youtube is the next platform of interest — a video of a young man deemed dangerous by the police for building a helicopter garnered 1.6 million views and its follow-up is nearing half a million. And finally, the team wants to return to Chitrakoot. “Digital can feel transient,” Mullick says. “So we would like to set up a media institute and offer fellowships so it gives young girls from rural areas the hope that journalism can be a career for them.”