Tuesday, March 08, 2016

On Women's Day, Celebrate These 5 "Invisible" Leaders

As a journalist who looks at an issue through a gender lens, I meet hundreds of women each year. While I see a change maker in each of them, there have been a few women who have especially inspired me with their grit and passion to turn the tide. On this International Women's Day, I wanted to salute five of  those harbingers of change.

1. From Sexual Violence Victim to Anti-GBV Warrior

There was a time Ramvati Bai thought of nothing but killing herself.  A widowed mother of two, the 20 something tribal woman in Bakud village of India's Madhya Pradesh state was sexually harassed and assaulted by her father-in-law for three years. Yet, when she finally gathered the courage to file a complaint, the police dismissed her, calling it a “family matter”. To make things worse, Ramvati's mother in law threw her out of the house for bad naming her father in-law.  With two young children and no place to go, Ramvati thought ending her life was the only option.

But today Ramvati can be seen consoling and supporting other women victims of sexual and gender based violence. In fact, she informs such women of the existing laws against violence against women and how to seek legal justice.

According to Ramvati, it happened when she joined Narmada Mahila Sangh - a network of  fellow tribal women that helps victims of domestic violence seek justice. The members of  the network are trained paralegals and they in turn run workshops for other women in the villages on a range of issues from understanding existing laws and policies, to learning how to conduct a basic investigation before approaching the police. They also counsel, provide moral support and often, a sympathetic sister's shoulder to cry on.

“We want a life of dignity, free of violence,” Ramvati Bai told me when we met. “Nothing else matters more than that. You can read my story on her here.

2. From disability and abandonment to water leadership

At 58, Prema Bai  - a physically challenged woman has the energy and enthusiasm of a 15 year old.  In her village Mamna  in Uttar Pradesh – India’s largest and most populated state - every man and woman under 50 has fled Mamna in recent weeks, because of a severe drought. Those who are left behind includes women with very young children and the elderly like Prema Bai. “They thought we were like cattle, a burden in this hard time because we only eat but yield no returns,” says Bai whose two sons and their wives also migrated to Agra — a city 255 km away — to work in a brick kiln.

They were wrong: despite being paralysed from her waist downwards, Bai is working along with her women neighbours to end the water crisis in her village. Dressed in blue that symbolizes water, Bai and her fellow women have a new name for themselves: ‘Jal Saheli’ (meaning ‘Water Friend’ in Hindi).

 Among the many impressive works of these "water friends" are  1)  lobbying government officials for installing hand-pumped wells and laying pipeline  for running water in every village 2) ensuring every vilage has enough drinking water for the people and the cattle, 3) giving every woman - irrespective of her religion and social standing -have right to access water, 4) getting toilets for each women and so much more.

With her fellow water friends, Prema Bai is working hard to turn each drought-ravaged village into a livable place, one neighborhood at a time.

3) From an "almost" child bride to an anti-child marriage activist

Nillikanti Parvatiamma, now 16,  almost became a child bride. She was only 14 then. “My parents wanted to give large amount of cash and some land as my wedding gift. They decided to marry me to a 28 year-old male relative so that the gifts would stay within our family,” says the teenager who lives in a village near Sri Shailam - a well known tourist attaraction in India's Telangana state.

But not one to watch silently her life being ruined, Parvatiamma one day ran away from her house and walked into the office of a local charity that was working in the region against child marriage. "Help me, I don't want to marry now," she cried. Luckily for her, the charity, along with local priests, activists, and local police officers, was able to convince her parents that child marriage was a crime.

Since then, Parvatiamma has been able to stop several other girls of her age from getting married off. She has a network of friends who share news on girls whose parents are planning to marry off their daughter and then spreads the news to the authorities. I was amazed to see a anti-child marriage activist of such a young age who was also quite admired in her community. If only we had a few more like her!

4. Bringing Solar Energy deep inside the Woods

Chintapakka Jambulamma never went to school. But today, she runs a women entrepreneurs' collective that uses solar energy to run a roaring bisiness of dried herbs and  fruits - deep inside a forest of India. The collective, called Advitalli Tribal Women’s Co-operative Society, is perhaps the only such group where women of forest dwelling primitive tribes are turning entrepreneurs, using renewable energy. 

Even a couple of years ago, Jambulamma and every other woman in her collective used to merely survive by gathering roots, herbs and fruits (known as "minor forest produce") and selling them for a few rupees. Life was all about scrapping by. In fact, the forest would often be ravaged by cyclones and sea storms, as it is close to the coast. In such cases, the women would find see all of their herbs rot and wasted because of excessive moisture and rain.

But three years ago, they bought a solar drier (cost about a million rupees (1700 dollars). The day we met, Jambulamma was giving  a demonstration of how to use the solar drier to her fellow forest women.

Today, using solar energy to dry their herbs has helped the women minimize risks of damage. And they are finding new clients- including large medicine manufacturers who come to buy their produce from the collective because of its good quality. 

5. From shame to dignity

I met Swapna Raj in 2012 - at a time when I was just beginning as a ground story teller. Her story as a HIV positive woman standing up for a life of dignity and independence was so powerful, I was truly moved to tears.

 Swapna was infected by her former husband (now dead) who had contracted it by visiting brothels. But when he died and Swapna found out her own HIV positive status, typically, her parents in-laws threw her out of their homes. Much like Ramvati Bai of Madhya Pradesh, Swapna was had no place to go and had contemplated suicide.

But a counseling job in an NGO gave her the chance to interact with thousands of HIV positive people across the state, and she gained deep insight into challenges and possible solutions. Then, in  007, she formed the PLHIV network in Hyderabad and started to train HIV positive women in making candles and Christmas trees, beads and paper lanterns, in embroidery, making flower bouquets and garlands and above all, stitching clothes, banners and ribbons.

At the time I met Swapna, she had re-married. Her son - from her previous marriage - was going to school and had tested negative for HIV. I remember her cutting small pieces of red ribbons which would be used a few days later, at the AIDS day. Before we parted ways, she had  a request: not to share her contact details, with anyone. The local media, she felt, was only interested in sensationalizing her story. "I might live only a few more years and I want to work without any distraction. I want to help as many HIV+ women I can, to live with dignity," she said.

Today on the International Women's Day, I salute that spirit of silent and invisible leadership of Swapna and all the other women in her network. They truly inspire!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

In Photos: A Day With Rural India's Barefoot Radio Producers

Last summer, in a tiny town called Orccha in central India, I met Ekta, Gauri and Kausalya - three women working for a community radio station called 'Radio Bundelkhand'. The radio station, now in its 8th year, serves farmers in about a dozen villages within a radius of about 70 km.
For two days, I followed these three women as they traveled around villages, interviewing farmers, recording their stories and later, broadcasting content that they created just for these farming community. Here are 10 photographs that describe the journey I took along with these barefoot journalists and their amazing audience.

1. It was a very hot summer day with the mercury hitting almost 40 degree Celsius. We had hired a car, so the journey was relatively easier. 

But on a normal day, the reporters travel in an auto rickshaw (also known as Tuk Tuk to some) from their office in Orchha to the entrance of a village. From their, its a long walk to the inside of the village.With them they carry a voice recorder, a notebook and, often a radio which they play for the entertainment of the villagers, many of whom do not have the money to buy a radio.

"We go everywhere - the field, the community pond or the backyard where people usually gather and rest during the hot afternoon. We don't expect them to leave their work and come, talk to us. So, we go them.," said Ekta the oldest of the three reporters. 

And just as she had said, I saw them walking right though a village called Vaswan, to a field where they interviewed two elderly farmers the challenges they were facing: lack of water, pest attacks etc. Every interview ended with the reporters promising the farmers to address the problems in their next week's program.

3. During these interviews, I had some mixed feelings: "Men are talking about their problems and that is good. But where are the women?" I was thinking and wondering if this was yet another place where women were barred from talking to outsiders.

I was wrong! Once the three women finished talking to the men, they walked to another part of the village. Someone called them and asked them to follow.  Soon, we were at the backyard of a house where, under a Neem tree, women and girls of all ages were gathering, all of them eager to talk!

4. Soon, the interviews began. Gauri - the youngest of the three radio reporters - began by talking to younger women about their opinion on the radio station and its program. Did they have any suggestions for improvement? They sure did!

"We want more news about vocational training and competitive examinations. Also,  please play more 'modern' songs on the radio," the young women urged.

5. The girls soon had to give way to older women who had been waiting patiently until now. They had a lot of to say! But first,  they all wanted to sing a song for other listeners of the radio station.

 Here - you can listen to a folk song the women sang. It is about a woman asking her father, why did he marry her off so early and then goes on to describe the problems she has had because of this early marriage. 

6. Their song over, the women turned to discussing the role of the radio in development of a farming community : "We don't have TV (because they don't have enough electricity to run  a TV). There are no cinema halls. The radio is our source of entertainment, information and education. This is our media, said the women. They then discussed how the radio's program was helping them become better farmers and also smarter businesswomen.
"We now know what is the market rate of each vegetable we grow because the radio gives us that information. Earlier, retailers used to fool us into selling at a very low price, but now they can't," they said.

7. From Vaswan, they proceeded to another village called Chitawar

Here, to my utter delight and surprise, the gathering included the village's oldest women. They sat with a radio in the middle, while young women and girls surrounded them. A few feet away, there was a buffalo chewing cud with a content look on its face. '

"Here, even the buffalo listens to a radio," the women joked.

8. And then there was some more singing and some more story telling. Men joined in the conversation with their own stories. 

One of them talked about the ill affect of child marriage and how the media (in this case, the radio) could and must help end that practice. Reporter Ekta recorded this. "There are still a lot of child marriages in this region, so we will definitely play this message," she said

9. And then everyone turned to me: "come, sit with us," some said. Others asked me to sing with them. "This is our radio, our program," they said again and again. 
So, I grabbed the opportunity to take a picture with these women who are keeping the media of radio alive and kicking in their region!

10. By evening, we were back at Orchha - the studio of the radio. The reporters immediately got busy editing their stories and recording the voice overs. Soon, it would be dark and they would go home - traveling for a minimum one hour in a rickety bus.

But right now, each one of them - including Kausalya who was 7 months pregnant - looked as though this studio and these stories was her entire world.

Months later, I still vividly see those faces - serious, full of concentration, trying to tell a story of the ground in a powerful way. And I hear the echo of what the women said "The radio is our source of entertainment, information and education."

 You can read my story on the community radio and the impact that it has been making by clicking on this link: Farmers Find their Voice Through Radio in the Badlands of India. 

Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015: The Year That It Was

 How was 2015? Sharing here a few leaves out of my diary that's full of memories - of traveling and story-telling.

With Village Women who Fight Traffickers

The first trip of the year took me to the villages of Lambadi people (a Nomadic tribe) in Mahabubnagar district of Telangana. Not so long ago, these villages were a notorious hub for sale and trafficking of baby girls. But today, local women are ensuring that every girl goes to school. They also fighting against child labor and child marriage. Here you can read their inspiring story - Not Without Our Daughters: Lambada Women Fight Infanticide and Child Trafficking.

Telling stories of India’s Development Refugees

In February, I met men, women and children of Koya and Konda – primitive forest tribes living in India’s Eastern Ghat mountain. Soon, thousands of them will become refugees as a mega dam is coming up in their homeland. Here is the link to their story  'Development refugees' resist Indian dam

But even as uncertainty is looming large over their future, the tribal community is learning skills that will keep them food-secure even in the most adverse situation. Here you can read that story "In the Shadow of Displacement, Forest Tribes Look to Sustainable Farming"

Saturday, December 05, 2015

COP21 : What can it do for Rina - a climate change refugee?

21st UNFCCC Conference of the Parties or COP21 has just begun. Its THE most important climate summit of our lifetime where we expect the world to strike a climate deal - one that will be "gender responsive". On the occasion, I am running a 2-week blog campaign, connecting the dots among COP21, Climate Change and Gender

 Rina Dash is an undocumented migrant worker in New Delhi. In 2008, she came here from Satkhira district of Bangladesh. There was a cyclone she says, and it destroyed her home and flooded her little farm she says. It was super cyclone Sidr, I learned - a disaster that killed over 3000 people.

After the flood water went down, nothing could be grown on the far, says Rina. So, her husband suggested that they migrate to New Delhi . 

Why Delhi? "Because we heard thee was plenty of jobs."
But when they came here, her husband found a job of a rickshaw puller. Rina, when I met her, was a janitor. She was paid as  a daily wager. They live in a juggi - a shack made of tarpaulin sheet.

Memories of a climate refugee: Rina shows the photos of her relatives who died in the cyclone. She requested me not to show her face as this could lead to her deportation as an illegal migrant
Across New Delhi, there are thousands of  undocumented migrant workers like Rina

Thursday, December 03, 2015

A ray hope for Neha at COP21

21st UNFCCC Conference of the Parties or COP21 has just begun. Its THE most important climate summit of our lifetime where we expect the world to strike a climate deal - one that will be "gender responsive". On the occasion, I am running a 2-week blog campaign, connecting the dots among COP21, Climate Change and Gender

 A very interesting development took place on the 3rd day of COP21: the World Bank Group announced that it would make a  US$500 million investment to support one of India's groundwater program.  India, we must remember, is the world’s largest consumer of groundwater.

The announcement made me think of Neha - the little girl in the picture - a 6th grade school student who spends several hours out of school, drawing water for the family everyday from a small pond. The quality of water - as you can see - is horrible.
A muddy pond - the main source of water for Neha

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

COP21: Can it help a HIV Positive Bimla?

21st UNFCCC Conference of the Parties or COP21 has just begun. Its THE most important climate summit of our lifetime where we expect the world to strike a climate deal - one that will be "gender responsive". On the occasion, I am running a 2-week blog campaign, connecting the dots among COP21, Climate Change and Gender. 

It's 2nd day of COP21. It's also World AIDS Day.  Let me bring you the story of Bimla - a young woman from Machalipatnam - a coastal town in southern India. Barely 25 year old, Bimla is a widow and lives with HIV.

What is the connection between  Bimla and COP21 or Climate Change? To understand that, you need to hear how Bimla got the virus. She was infected by her husband - a farmer who lost his farm to a cyclone in 2010 ( That cyclone - cyclone Laila, was actually one of the 60 cyclones that their state has seen in past 4 decades),

Monday, November 30, 2015

COP 21: Can it ease the burden of Durga?

21st UNFCCC Conference of the Parties or COP21 has just begun. Its THE most important climate summit of our lifetime where we expect the world to strike a climate deal - one that will be "gender responsive". On the occasion, beginning from today, I am running a 2-week blog campaign, connecting the dots among COP21, Climate Change and Gender. 

I just met Durga Rajak in Kathamndu - the capital of Nepal. She is in her early forties and runs a roadside eatery with her husband. The most popular dish in their eatery is Choila - spicy, fried duck meat served hot with flattened rice which sells for 50 Nepali rupees (about $40 cent) a plate. It's not a lot of money since a kg of meat costs 650 rupees ($6) , so, Durga always kept the expenses low by working extra hard such as  buying produces from local growers and carrying things on her motorbike, instead of employing a person.

But these days, Durga is struggling. Normally, she uses Liquefied Petroleum Gas or "cooking gas". But since the end of September, cooking gas - besides petrol and diesel -has become hard to find. So, she is now using stoves that run on kerosene. Sometimes, when kerosene is unavailable, Durga uses diesel (which she buys in the black market) in her stove.

 Its very risky and  every time she lights the stove, Durga fears a blast.

But its a risk she must take. Only a few months ago, in April, Kathmandu was hit by a massive earthquake.At that time, Durga had to close her eatery for several weeks. She had also spent nearly a month under the open sky, on little little food and water. Today she is determined to keep her business running, come whatever may. "To be dependent on others is tough," she says.

But currently she is dependent on a number of people for her survival: the cooking gas distributors, the petrol& diesel stations and also the black marketeers. How long could she go on?  She was quiet, but I could sense her answer: "as long as I can."

A thought came in my mind as I heard her story: what would have happened if Durga had a stove that ran on solar energy?