In impoverished villages surrounding Zaheerabad, India, a handful of illiterate Dalit women have taken communication tools into their hands—specifically, video and radio. Their goal: autonomy and self-reliance for their communities.
They experience three kinds of discrimination: They are women, poor and of the lowest caste. By using video and radio, they have gained respect in their communities and have contributed to development and cultural identity.
They are “barefoot” reporters and producers of documentary films that contribute to community discussions on cultural issues and traditions that affect the lives of women and all community members in one of India’s poorest areas.
Their effort is an initiative of the Deccan Development Society, which works with rural women who are a part of the DDS sanghams, community groups. Most of the women are Dalits.
P.V. Sateesh, director of the DDS, says the project seeks to achieve sustainable development, inclusion and participation. “When we started 25 years ago,” Sateesh says, “we were looking for the autonomy to produce crops, autonomy over seeds and autonomy over our natural resources. When later we analysed the impacts of globalisation on the poor, we added … market autonomy and autonomy over media. This was about ten years ago when we started using video and then radio”.
Dalit women operate Sangham Radio, one of the first community radio stations authorized in India under a November 2006 Indian law. Although it has not yet broadcast, the station has produced 400 hours of programmes on gender, education, agriculture, health, music, local culture, weeding and cropping.
The community radio centre opened in 1996 with a 100-watt transmitter that can reach a 30-km radius and cover up to 100 villages. UNESCO has supported the station as part of its "Women Speak to Women" project.
“General” Narsamma, one of the two community radio operators, says, “If we had not learned to operate the radio, we probably would still have been daily labourers. Now, there is more respect for us in the community. Today, everyone recognizes us. They say, ‘Hey, they work for the radio.’ Earlier no one noticed us.”
Narsamma appears on the cover of India’s first book on community radio, Other Voices, written by Vinod Pavarala and Kanchan K. Malik.
The Communication for Social Change Consortium has produced a video documentary Women of Pastapur. Alfonso Gumucio, who directed the production and did the camera work, followed them through small villages as they shot a new film on the subject of traditional herbal medicine. See below for information on how to order Women of Pastapur.
Two filmmakers, Lakshmamma and Pula, talk with Ramullamma, in Shamshadinpur Village, before they begin filming her at work.
Lakshmamma says: “Ramullamma distributes locally-produced medicines from plants to people from within and outside the village. By shooting and editing a film that captures her activities and airing it on TV channels, we can let others know and understand how this lady makes medicines and sells it to many people.”
Lakshmamma says, “We must be choosy about our shots and use the tripod to get steady shots. We follow up each long shot with a close-up so you can see the vessels of herbs and their contents clearly.”
Before interviewing Ramullamma, Lakshmamma tells her, “You have to tell all this, nicely. Tell your name and your village’s name, okay? Sit properly. You are going to be on TV.”
Ramullamma has learned the science of herbal medicine and helps her community cope with commons illness. She says, “Pills made from ginger, pepper and mint can cure oedema. Dry and powdered gooseberry is given to cure piles. For white patches on the skin, I give pills made from neem leaves anddhurda gunta (itching) leaves. I give papaya fruit seeds to children suffering with loose motions.”
Many women visit Ramullamma’s home, asking her for advice. Others come to observe her as she works.
Ramullamma says, “I help childless couples conceive at Usurakaipalli. There’s an activist here and she was not conceiving. I asked her to visit me after a month. She did and now she is eight months pregnant.”
The women of Sangham Radio—filmakers and radio operators—continue to document activities of villagers as part of an ongoing effort to bring the voices of the community to a larger audience. In this way they are not only helping achieve autonomy and self-reliance for their communities but also gaining respect from those around them.
Report and photos by Alfonso Gumucio Dagron.
Report and photos by Alfonso Gumucio Dagron.