Smashing stereotypes, empowering hundreds of vulnerable tribals through video stories – the remarkable Shikha Kumari Paharin

“I was very influenced by VV's training and what can be done with the power of the camera and video storytelling.”

It’s not often that you meet a woman belonging to a vulnerable tribal community in India who has risen up the ranks of a media house to become a fiery video journalist, telling stories about the lives of her people.

Shikha, who belongs to the Sauriya Pahariya tribe, an indigenous Dravidian ethnic community classified as a 'particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG), is our Community Correspondent and one such gem. She lives and works in Sahibganj district of Jharkhand, one of the most marginalised districts in the country.  

In her 8 years with Video Volunteers, she has progressively grown from being a bold Community Correspondent to a Mentor to new Community Correspondents in her state. 

The main problems of the tribal community in this region are poverty, indebtedness, illiteracy, bondage, exploitation, diseases, and unemployment.

Since 2014, she has been a leading tribal voice against the oppression and human rights violations that her isolated community faces. 

"Non-tribal community members are under the false impression that tribal people are content and they don't need anything much in life. The fact is that most tribal people don't even know what their rights are, in case they need to defend themselves," Shikha said.

Her modus operandi has been to tell evocative and fact-based video stories on the lack of basic facilities for the tribals including drinking water, absence of teachers in schools, and non-issuance of pension for laborers. 

Early life in the circus troupe

Fed up with physical abuse from her alcoholic grandfather, her father left home and went to the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh when he was 10 years old. He got odd jobs in a traveling circus troupe and married a woman from the religious town of Mathura, who gave birth to Shikha. "My mother and I used to make photo frames out of plaster of paris to support my father's income from the circus," she says of her earliest childhood memories.

Though he was uneducated, Shikha's father enrolled her in a local school and she did her formal education till standard 6 in Uttar Pradesh.

"When I was in 7th standard (11 years old), we moved back home to Jharkhand's Sahibganj where my father started work as a social worker because he wanted to help our community members. I remember how people used to come to meet him to resolve issues like water shortage, poor roads leading to the village and absence of education facilities. He had the confidence to take their issues to the government officials. I was 13 years then and began helping him write petitions on behalf of the villagers," Shikha says of her initiation into social work. 

While most tribal women live and exist under the shadows of their parents and then their husband, Shikha's upbringing in Ranchi and the way she took to activism inspired by her father, gave her an independent mindset. 

Vocal activism to camera angles

In 2010 she got information about a video training program organized by the central government specifically for the skill development of Tribal people, through the network of NGOs she and her father dealt with. It was 40 days long, and she attended with her 2 and a half year old child in tow.

"I was the first person from my tribal community to undergo this training but there were 30 others from other communities too in my batch. We were taught to shoot videos, use camera angles, write scripts and give a piece to the camera (P2C). I was influenced by the training and what all can be done with the power of the camera and video storytelling," she says with pride. 

"A photograph of me holding the camera while my son was swaddled against me was printed in the local newspaper by a photojournalist and later that image was used in the Jharkhand government's calendar too," the activist turned journalist says.

She was trained by journalists of local news channels and got to visit the offices of Doordarshan (the Indian government's official news and entertainment channel), seeing a fully equipped newsroom for the first time.

The genesis of a video volunteer

The videography certification course also came with the option for the trainees to apply for government loans to buy equipment to start a studio, but Shikha did not avail of it and used her phone to gather footage.

 "Once the course was over I began enquiring about local issues and talking to people, getting them on camera and doing small stories for this NGO called ‘Samvad’ in our region. I also knew local journalists through my initial days of social work, and I used to take photos or film video clips of local issues and give it to them," she says.

However, she did not have enough contacts to get a job at a media house, so she pursued her higher secondary education until 2012. Two years later, a video editor friend in 'Samvad' informed her about Video Volunteers and Shikha approached them for work.

"The people from VV team asked me if I was aware of the issues in my region that needed to be addressed. I gave them a long list, instead of naming one or two issues! I suppose they liked it, because they asked me to join them,” she says with a laugh.

Community cop against trafficking

Human trafficking, especially of girls, is a grave issue in Jharkhand and a few other states in India where there’s a sizeable tribal population. On joining VV, issues related to trafficking resonated very strongly with Shikha and she made it her mission to take such cases head-on and also create awareness among her community members about human trafficking.

She considers her trafficking story one of the highlights of her career so far at VV. "I got to know about this 16-year-old girl Nati Pahadin who was sold by her husband to a policeman's brother for Rs 70,000 (USD ). I did a story and followed up relentlessly till we traced the girl to Bihar and freed her. However, the offenders were powerful people and despite the main accused being initially arrested under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, they got away by paying some token compensation and influenced the case," Shikha recalls.

 

 

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, as many as 373 women were trafficked from Jharkhand to other states in India in 2018, data which activists say is a gross undercount. Women, girls and children from tribal families are lured on the pretext of jobs and are pushed into slavery and the sex trade in bigger cities every year.

Despite the setbacks in the case, Shikha is happy that her handling of the matter and relentless drive gave her the confidence to take up more trafficking cases and create positive impacts to reduce these flagrant human rights violations.

Video Volunteers ran a “Trafficking Talk Show” to educate villagers in Jharkhand and West Bengal  the ugly face of human trafficking. In this project, each Correspondent conducted a series of 10 20 screenings and discussions on trafficking around districts with high trafficking rates. Shikha was among the 12 Community Correspondents who were part of this initiative.

Influencing family against patriarchy

The family system among the Tribals in the hills of Jharkhand is equally patriarchal or male-dominated, just like it is among non-tribal families. 

"After my training sessions with VV, my awareness of patriarchal issues grew. As a part of VV’s Khel Badal campaign, I started an in-person discussion club and formed a WhatsApp group to discuss the matter and showed videos that I had created about women being unaware of their own rights, the ill effects of child marriages on women and society, the menstruation-related stigma women face, and why these issues were not discussed openly," Shikha says. 

Khel Badal (Change the Game)  is a campaign to detect, decode and dismantle patriarchy. Thirty Five Community Correspondents from across 12 states were trained to conduct discussions on everyday patriarchal practices. Shikha was one of them.

Shikha also asked the community girls to think and question age-old customs like the ghunghat (purdah) system, why marital rape was not reported and what was the reason behind discrimination between girls and boys.  

Steeped in unwritten customs of patriarchy, women in rural and even several parts of urban India are not expected to address their husbands or elders by their name and use certain suffixes to do that.

Inspired by Shikha's video activism, one of her cousins called off her marriage after her fiance raised hell when she addressed him directly using his first name rather than an honorific. "These were a few trigger points for my personal exposure towards the ingrained patriarchal system in our tribal society and they increased my determination to work on these issues," she adds. 

To spread awareness among the girls in her community, Shikha involved them in the  Khel Badal campaign and showed them videos to enable people to expose patriarchy, question it, and dismantle it. The videos have interviews of rural families going about their daily life under the patriarchal system and show how girls at home are expected to do domestic chores all day by sacrificing their education and even happiness.

Another cousin-sister of Shikha who was career-minded also attended some of these screenings and said that her father was against her taking up a job in Ranchi and being independent. 

"I am very proud of what happened next. When denied permission to work for a living, my cousin left home, went to Ranchi, got a job in an automobile showroom, and found a room to rent to live," she says victoriously.

In her married life, Shikha has shown the courage to stand up against patriarchy, and is much the happier for it. "I got married really early, at age 16. But it was my own choice. My husband was also a social worker and I decided on my own to marry him. However, while I was doing stories and trying to resolve people's basic issues, give them their rights and stop exploitation, he was exploiting people by taking money from them on the pretext of resolving their issues," she says.

Her husband's deeds landed them in trouble with the law when he couldn't pay back someone he owed money and the police ended up arresting Shikha first.

However, her years of fieldwork with VV and brushing shoulders with police and district authorities for community issues were known to most and the police let her go, realizing her husband was the sole culprit. 

"I had given him a few chances in the past too but this was the worst thing he could do. I separated from him immediately," says Shikha who has two school-going sons from this failed marriage.

Taking education issues to the national stage with NDTV

Shikha can talk about camera angles, story angles, and editing tools like any professional journalist from the city, and she attributes her technical strength to the training she's undergone with VV. 

Her comfort and deftness in handling broadcast-quality cameras or smaller ones or the mobile phone cameras of today came in handy when her story was selected for one of the leading news programs 'The buck stops here' anchored by veteran journalist Barkha Dutt. At the time, VV was partnering with NDTV to produce content on maternal and child health. 

"I was among the nine community journalists selected by VV from nice states in India to do a story each for this popular new show. I told them about a school where no teacher had set foot for about two years," Shikha says with pride echoing in her voice.

The news channel liked the story idea and Shikha made it more interesting by calling it the school where the faculty only visited on Independence day and Republic day. 

This story created a huge impact and teachers were appointed in a short time. The then Food Minister of Jharkhand took note of the news story and ensured other schools in the area were operational and children received their mid-day meals. 

“When you work for a news organization, your responsibility is limited to reporting the story, however, at VV you go beyond reporting the issue. We work with the community and try to resolve the issue together,” Shikha says.

 

 

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In her 8 years as a Community Correspondent, Shikha has produced 58 stories on various issues, of which 14 have achieved an impact, positively affecting nearly 1000 people. These are very impressive numbers coming from a person who is from a community that doesn’t even let the girl child flip the page of their books.

 

Setting up Vaccine camps

Like her other active colleagues at VV, Shikha too was unable to do live reporting from her community during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

"When VV started distributing basic food rations to the needy people I helped identify the beneficiaries and made sure only the needy got them. I personally know that nobody in my region went hungry during this time because they got relief packages from the Central and state governments, as well as the district administration," Shikha says.

She worked with the administration to organize vaccine camps in two villages because of their hesitancy to travel to get a jab. "Setting up a camp on their own soil led to 100 people of the tribal community being vaccinated," says Shikha, who took the first shot to show its safety to people.

Personal Progression

Shikha feels that working with Video Volunteers has had a considerable impact on her personal growth. “I’ve changed so much since I started working with VV in 2014, that I feel like I’m a completely different person now,” she says. 

“Earlier, I was very shy. I couldn’t talk in front of men. If I was asked to speak a little loudly, I’d feel scared and start crying. Today, I’m not afraid to take on high-ranking  government officials also.”

Today Shikha still does stories but takes more time to research on the topic she's working on. Also, her clout as a Community Correspondent who gets things people's issues resolved works in people's favour.

"People still approach me with their issues and sometimes I try and resolve it even without making a video story out of it and making some phone calls or personal visits," the impact-driven media person says.

 As a young, single parent living under strained financial conditions, Shikha faces many challenges. Despite the difficulties, she continues to work for the welfare of her community. “I’ve always wanted to be an activist, to help my community. This is my dream.”

Mentee to Mentor in 2555 days

The hours she has spent behind the camera lens, the editing desk, the scripting table, and for the tribals’ rights as a Community Correspondent has not gone in vain. Today she's a Mentor who oversees a team of 10 CCs all over Jharkhand to use the power of the camera, narration, and storytelling for community benefit, education, awareness, and development. After she assumed the new role, the quality of video stories from her region has improved considerably, say her colleagues at VV. 

"I was promoted as a mentor in 2021 where my role is to guide new CCs to do stories. The new batch of Community Correspondents needs to learn much more because they missed out on in-person training due to the COVID -19 lockdown. I really enjoy the current mentoring role I am involved in," she says clearly aware of where her skills can be put to use to carve out the new lot of community media persons.

Given the thorough training she's received from Video Volunteers, Shikha knows that the role of a mentor goes beyond just training the Correspondents. She is also their friend and social worker, and because she is also a Correspondent, she understands fully the challenges they face and open up to her. 

"At times, I have to find ways to inspire them to deal with a difficult government official or a challenging problem faced by the community,” the inspiring journalist says.

”I often discuss issues with my mentor colleagues to understand how they would have guided the CCs under such circumstances. We share our experiences and help each other solve problems. It's an enriching network where we all benefit from the collective wisdom of the group,” she points out.

Shikha has mentored 10 CCs since taking up the new role and she's sure there will be many more in the times ahead.

Shikha surely doesn't like to be an arm-chair mentor. Despite her promotion as a mentor, she's presently working on a story about the status of Anganwadi in her region.

Shikha is ambitious and would like to move up the ladder at VV. In the meantime, as a mentor,  Shikha is sharpening her strategy to raise awareness from village to village about trafficking so that young parents know how not to fall prey to the lure of jobs, money, or anything materialistic.

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