While the senior reporters have high school or college degrees, the fresh entrants are less educated. “We also see how willing they are to learn,” says Meera, the thirty-eight-year-old chief editor of the paper. (The women do not use their last names, which they view as symbolizing generations of subjugation.) “Being a woman journalist here takes a lot of guts.”
“Local news” is their battle cry. The team covers stories in the interiors of the countryside that are ignored by mainstream papers. Meera reminisces about a story on a village deep in the forest, which was being held captive by bandits. “None of the bigger newspapers dared to go,” she says. “We two women walked through the jungle to tell their tale.”
They reported that the town constabulary was sleeping in the children’s school of the village instead of protecting its inhabitants. In another piece, the team reported on a local politician whose family member had occupied a public landholding. “We may not have been able to solve the problem but we brought a lot of attention to it,” says Shanti, a reporter who was married when she was five years old.
Shanti’s parents were woodcutters who could not afford to send her to school. In her thirties, she met social activists who were running literacy camps near her village. Since then, it’s taken nearly a decade for her to become a full-fledged reporter.
The forty-year-old journalist recalls her favorite story, one she did on a hospital that had made it a practice to refuse rural women care in the emergency ward.
When her pregnant friend was asked to leave, Shanti refused to budge and managed to pry open the doors of the ER a few minutes before delivery. “I know my rights,” she says, matter-of-factly. Next week, an article on the hospital appeared in the paper.
Such pieces have garnered much respect for Khabar Lahariya and made it into a local brand. “First when we went for reporting, people would not let us enter their homes or sit with us because of our caste. But now they know these are the reporters from Khabar Lahariya,” says Shanti.
Despite the recognition and accolades, the reporters still battle several obstacles. Their families still consider it scandalous and dangerous to traverse the countryside at odd hours and talk to men. “Women in journalism are considered a sin,” says correspondent Kavita, who was a bride at age twelve.
Although the friction persists, Kavita, now thirty-two, has convinced her in-laws to support her decision. But now, outsiders scoff at her kin. “My neighbors saw my husband making dinner so now they call him my servant,” she sighs. “It never ends.” To keep the peace, journalism must coexist with cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children.
The rigid caste structure also hampers their job. In the beginning, people refused to talk to these women because of their low caste. “The first step was to make them get over their own fears because they had lived with discrimination for so long,” says Mullick.
Another reporter, also named Meera, recalls her childhood experience. “I will never forget when my teacher refused to take water from my hands,” she says. Now, the twenty-three-year-old is doing a story about a teacher facing pressure from “upper-caste” parents who want their children to be seated separately from the “low-caste” students.
Although journalism hasn’t solved all their problems, it has empowered the women to claim an identity. “For centuries we have only been known as someone’s mother, wife or daughter,” says Kavita. “Today we’re journalists.”