Using the media for social uplift

BY TERESA REHMAN| IN Regional Media | 28/03/2014
A social activist from Deoria has learned how to use the media in her work with downtrodden communities.
TERESA REHMAN reports. PIX: Sangeeta, the social activist from Deoria

Sangeeta was elated to be in Delhi to receive an award for outstanding women achievers given by the National Commission for Women recently. So were the journalists in her area – Deoria district in Uttar Pradesh. She started getting calls from the local journalists who were keen to write about her achievement. She enjoys a very good rapport with the local mediapersons and­ has been able to use the media to her advantage.

A feisty social activist, Sangeeta has come up the hard way. She belongs to a conservative farming community and was compelled to marry at a tender age of 13 years. In her marital home she was subjected to torture and harassment initially for not bringing enough dowry and later for bearing daughters. She struggled to complete her high school and also in bringing up her two daughters. She gradually joined the NGOs which acknowledged her dedication and encouraged her to carry on her crusading work. Now, she is the head of Social Development Foundation which works with landless Musahar community in the district of Deoria and Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh on the border of Bihar. She proudly shows her daughter's photos on her mobile phone. "One of them wants to be a lawyer. One rides a motorcyle," she smiles.

The Musahars, a sub-caste of Dalits, are among the poorest and most socially marginalised communities in Bihar. They face discrimination not just from the upper-castes, government officials and local politicians but also from other Dalits who consider them untouchables. The district is struck by devastating floods every year. The Musahars, whose huts are located near the river or in low-lying areas, are the first to be cut-off from roads and communication links. Many starve or die of the diseases that strike as a result of water logging, since they cannot avail the medical facilities, which are very poor. Food is scarce and during floods or when they are unemployed, the Musahars are reduced to eating snails and rats.

Sangeeta has been working relentlessly to create awareness about superstitions, property rights of women, witch-hunting, and child marriage. “I approach the media and the media supports me a lot. I have the phone number of all the local journalists of media houses like Rashtriya Sahara, Dainik Jagaran and Hindustan. If there is any case of abuse of women, I call them and they in turn call the television channels,” she says.

This woman from a remote district in Uttar Pradesh has understood the power of the media. She recalls one incident when a person died of severe cold. He left behind his distraught wife and four kids. Sangeeta approached the local administration and asked relief in the form of a ration card, widow pension etc. The media followed her and her demands. And the administration was quick to respond.

“The local journalists have faith in my version. The administration also gets alarmed when I am around as they feel that they might be exposed in the media. Hence, our demands are quickly fulfilled,” says Sangeeta with a sense of pride. In fact, when she is around, the whole administrative machinery is on their toes and she and her team is never made to wait.

She displays her small digital camera which she brought out of her savings and also uses in her indigenous ‘sting operations’. For instance, a woman was injured in Pakaha village in Uttar Pradesh and the doctors refused to touch her as she was from a lower caste. Her son was also discriminated against in school and his teacher refused to even touch his notebook. And during the midday meal at school, the Dalit students were made to sit separately. She managed to capture both these scenes in her small camera and sent it to the media. There was immediate action against the doctor and the school teacher.

She maintains a healthy relationship with the media. “I can write a rough press release. I get it typed, take it on a pen drive, scan it and mail it to the media.” She agrees that media has degenerated in many ways and in many places paid media holds the sway. But she knows how to handle the media.

“Sometimes they edit my pieces and cite lack of space as the reason.” She narrates how mediapersons also call her and ask her to investigate into some sensitive matters related to abuse of women. Once she confirms the ground reality, the media takes on the story. In 2012, the Hindi daily Dainik Jagaran honored her for her work on empowering women in the district headquarters Deoria.

She agrees that the media can work wonders. “It depends on how one handles the media. Media comes to us on their own, seeing our sincerity and hard work. I was never scared of the media. I know how to check my email but I am yet to open a Facebook account.” But she is keen, however, to do a course on dealing with the media.

Teresa Rehman is Managing Editor, The Thumb Print magazine.

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