Beacon of hope: Semi-literate women in Kutch publish monthly newspaper Ujaas
Thursday, September 14, 2000 (Kutch):
Information is power. For women journalists in Gujarat, news has truly been a source of liberation. They publish a monthly newspaper in Gujarati, even though none of them have studied beyond the third standard.
Megheben, a Dalit woman from Habai village in Kutch, has only studied up to class one. Yet today she is a journalist of sorts, reporting for a very special women's newspaper called Ujaas. The publication was created by and for women like Meghe, who felt their concerns on issues like the environment, health and corruption had been neglected by other newspapers. Radhaben, Illustrator, Ujaas, said, "Only men get to read the local newspaper. It never reaches the women, and illiterate women don't even figure. Women can't access the newspaper because in a village it goes to the tea stall or the local restaurant. It never reaches the women. So this newspaper is for women. It's our newspaper."
Ujaas began seven years ago with an editorial team of five women and the backing of the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, a local NGO. The initial circulation of Ujaas was just 150 copies. Each of the articles was handwritten and then photocopied and distributed.
Like Meghe, the other members of the editorial team have not studied beyond primary school. But they can write simple colloquial Gujarati. They also learnt to get by with what they had. According to Megheben, "We were trained by a reporter from Kutch, Mitra, who taught us how to collect information. So now I prepare a set of questions and collect information. But since I am not very good at writing, I have to memorize most of the information that I collect for my report."
Today Ujaas has a circulation of 3,000 copies in over 600 villages in Kutch district. Sketches by Radhaben, the artist on the team, illustrate what is written in the report, especially since most of the readers don't know how to read and write fluently. Female literacy in the villages of Kutch is as low as 30 per cent. Alka Jani, Joint Executive Director, Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, said, "If you look at the women within our organization, at least half are illiterate. But they still subscribe to Ujaas because it satisfies their need for information."
While Ujaas is a valuable source of information on numerous government schemes that can benefit the rural population, the focus has primarily been on women's issues. For instance, gynaecological problems, considered taboo in rural society, have been identified by and discussed in the columns of Ujaas. Radhaben added, "Through our newspaper, we have also been able to spread awareness about women's health problems, how they should get themselves treated. Earlier, their problems went untreated because they were embarrassed."
Perhaps more importantly, Ujaas has given its readers and its editorial team a sense of confidence they never had before. Javji Ba, member, Editorial Team, Ujaas, elaborated, "Earlier we would have never come out of purdah. We never learnt to step out of our homes. If somebody like you would come along earlier, we would not know what to say. Now we have the confidence to talk. If we need to go anywhere, say to the police station, to interact with government officials, we can do that but still only in Gujarati."
Ujaas means light in Gujarati. This newsmagazine, started by a group of semi-literate women, stands out as an example of empowerment--a ray of hope that has gone further and become brighter since it was started seven years ago.