News from the Ground: Volunteering with Video Volunteers

[caption id="attachment_3079" align="alignleft" width="300"]Julia and Rohini visit a leprosy clinic in Walhe Julia and Rohini visit a leprosy clinic in Walhe[/caption] In 2012 I came from Germany to volunteer for Video Volunteers (VV) in India.    During my time here, I worked on the maintenance of the website of VV's own Community News Service, IndiaUnheard. I encountered the daily struggles of marginalised people in India. Video reports from a network of over 100 Community Correspondents from different parts of India are published on this website. My main responsibility was the strategic publication and dissemination of these videos through the Web 2.0 and writing the accompanying articles to the videos. I learnt a massive amount about this country, the culture as well as the politics and how missing infrastructure affects its people profoundly in economics and education. I researched and wrote about the failures of the well meaning welfare and health schemes to reach the people in need; displacement of slum dwellers and the ill effects of the changing environment and climate on the livelihoods of farmers and villagers. Each video aims to bring change on a social and political level. For myself it is a great information tool, because it is so close to the people affected. It’s powerful, because they speak with their hearts and at the same time uncover the structures that suppress them. While I was working at Video Volunteers, the ARTICLE 17 Campaign was launched to abolish all practices of Untouchability, which continue despite being constitutionally banned. The 22 videos of the campaign show 22 stories of caste discrimination in different states of India. All of them have one request: end caste -based discrimination and to live together in equality. Inspired by the video reports, I was intrigued about the continuation of such customs despite being illegal. I decided to understand why this is and how women in particular are affected by it. After several months of working in the office, I knew I had to meet some of the Community Correspondents in person to speak to them about the practices of Untouchability in their communities with a particular focus on women. I spent time with Rohini Pawar from Walhe, Maharashtra and Margaret Joeji and Mani Manickem from Tamil Nadu. All of them are most inspirational people, who work for social change in their communities. Gender equality and the abolition of Untouchability are central issues in their lives and work for equality. [caption id="attachment_3080" align="alignleft" width="300"]Margaret and Julia visit a slum with high drop out rates. Margaret hopes to set up a tuition center for these children Margaret and Julia visit a slum with high drop out rates. Margaret hopes to set up a tuition center for these children[/caption] A central thought is how the lack of adequate education perpetuates the practice of Untouchability. Margaret thinks people do not have any possibilities without proper education as their jobs continue to depend on more influential and resourceful people. She knows how hard it is for people living in slums to achieve a degree under challenging conditions, as she is also a Dalit—the first in many generations to finish her undergraduate degree against all odds. Mani agrees that without external financial support it is difficult, because the money is always limited and the children start supporting their parents by working themselves. Both have seen how many of their friends in the slums of Trichy and Chennai had dropped-out of school due to a lack of help in their studies and financial pressure. I also visited a few community screenings while on the field. After a community screening of the ARTICLE 17 Campaign in a slum of Chennai, people discussed practices of Untouchability and bonded labour with Mani. Being tied into financial despairs a lso means there is little space for them to sit back and think about their situation. The screening opened up this space for them. [caption id="attachment_3082" align="alignright" width="300"]Margaret and Mani organised a screening of videos on Untouchabilty opening up a space for them to talk about the issues Margaret and Mani organised a screening of videos on Untouchabilty opening up a space for them to talk about the issues[/caption] At a community screening with Margaret, I met human rights activists from various districts in Tamil Nadu. All of them confirmed that the practice continues in their areas as well. Women are not discussed in particular, but when I talked to the Correspondents all of them confirmed that they are hit most by these practices. Rohini thinks discrimination on the basis of Untouchability against women will only stop if women themselves stop discriminating against other women, like widows who become excluded from society. Meeting with the Community Correspondents was the central experience of my time living and working in India. They are all such inspiring courageous people, who do make change happen. It was great to see that an important tool for them to make change happen is their video camera. The empowerment they felt was significant as people start to listen and their voices are heard in the public sphere. Because of this, I hope IndiaUnheard will expand it’s services further and become part of news reports all around the world.   -- Julia Lechner
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