50-year-old Gayatri is an indefatigable force when it comes to breaking long-standing social bias in her life and that of her community members. Born to a Dalit family in the industrial district of Ambedkar Nagar in Uttar Pradesh with no access to education in her locality, Gayatri learned to read and write with the help of her friends' study notes.
"The closest higher secondary school was about 20 km away. I learned to cycle so that I could go to school on my own. I was the first girl in my community to ride a bicycle and also to complete college education," says Gayatri who is an award-winning community journalist with VV today.
Using community journalism to educate girls
Gayatri's struggles to get a basic education left a serious impact on her, and probably that's why she's always put the first foot forward when it came to issues of girls' education in her community and her locality. A boat accident in a nearby village where two young girls lost their lives and 15 just survived trying to get to school across a river troubled her deeply enough to take some action. With a heavy heart, she recounts the incident that led to the setting up of a school for the girls in their village in 2011.
"I heard about an accident in a village where a boat ferrying girls to a school capsized and two children died. Children who could go to school had to travel by boat and once it capsized. This incident troubled me a lot and in 2013, I visited the village and did a video story for VV about the need for a school in the village," she recounts.
A year later the story's impact led to raising funds and the setting up of a school in the village so that the girls don't have to take a ferry again to study. Today the school has 3 staff and 80 students, Gayatri says about her most impactful video story with VV. (watch here)
Another social impact story on education that she is proud of is about a school that was functioning without electricity. However, on visiting the school she realized the staff was reluctant to talk about their issues on camera. "I spoke to the teachers and convinced them that unless they came forward and spoke about their issues nothing would change. They agreed after much coaxing and the story had a positive impact, leading to the school getting a power connection," the community journalist says.
The reasons behind the skewed number of girls being allowed to attend or finish even primary education include lack of awareness, social bias, child marriage, school-home distance and lack of toilets. Only 1 in every 3 girls in India complete school education age-appropriately, according to U-DISE 2016-17. Only 53.7 Indian women are literate as compared to 75.3 men, as per 2011 census data.
Gayatri Devi is doing her part to in increase their participation by grooming a batch of 18 Dalit women like herself to teach a batch of 20 girls each. The disinterest in the basic education of the girl child even in 21st century India is still linked with early or child marriage. Out of the 12.15 million children married in India, 8.9 million are girls, according to U-DISE.
The start of community activism
Married off at 17 to a man who wasn't earning, and left with domestic chores which didn't stimulate her, Gayatri decided to be the breadwinner of the family and take up a job. When this decision was not welcomed by her in-laws, she moved away from her in-laws' house and kick-started her career with a local NGO called ‘Jan Sampark Kendra’ in 2001 to address people's issues.
“I started working with an NGO when my child was one-and-a-half years old. My husband started supporting me. But people around me made it very difficult. They would say things like she roams around like some tramp, and does not take care of her child. They would cast aspersions on my character,” Gayatri added.
But that did not deter her from her goals. "I worked at the NGO for 7 years to resolve the basic issue, exploitation of the poor, the plight faced and lack of rights of the Dalit community," she says, going down the memory lane of her professional life.
Feet on the ground, ears on community
Despite the lack of career guidance in her early days, Gayatri says she always wanted to be her own master and on her own feet. "Then I underwent training at a Dalit institute and then mustered the courage to start my own NGO 'Jan Vikas Kendra' (People's Development Center) by 2010. She chose the name herself, and it reflects her life mission: the development of herself, her community, and her locality.
It was during this phase that she realized that it was not easy to resolve people's issues and problems unless it created some kind of an impact that was noticed by the right government authority. "It occurred to me that just taking a petition and some newspaper clipping of the issue to the government official or panchayat member was not creating the desired positive impact on the ground," Gayatri says. That's when an activist introduced her to Video Volunteers, where she was trained in community journalism, camera handling, story scripting, and narration. "I started contributing for them in 2013, and this was a turning point in my career in the social sector," she adds.
Gayatri’s video stories are mostly focused on entitlement issues. Her strength is her ability to mobilize her community for social causes and the efficient manner in which she gets government officials to get these tasks, based on the bond she’s built with them.
Sensitizing the sarkar
When one thinks of a community activist, images of fist-clenching, sloganeering, banner-holding protesters rallying outside a government office usually come to mind. Gayatri Devi is not that kind of activist. Instead, she works with officials to find common ground, and often appeals to their egos to get things done. "Many officials think they are just doing a job and they forget they are working for the people. I keep reminding them of that. I also tell them that if they successfully resolve people's issues and make them happy, it will be good for their own career too," Gayatri says, of her strategies for creating impact through community journalism.
Her field experience with community issues taught her that community activists and journalists have to raise their voices to escalate the matter, but creating a ruckus is not the best way to get work done. "It is important to make them realize their duties as a government official. I make them feel important and that they are very capable of doing good work," she adds. Working hand-in-hand with government officials to take up local complaints and issues seriously, Gayatri says she goes to the extent of telling them that if they are not aware of a particular issue or believe the issue is affecting lives, then she would submit a video story to highlight it.
India launched the Swachh Bharat Mission, the world's largest behavior change program, to eliminate open defecation in 2014. However, many parts of rural India are still not Open Defecation Free (ODF). Women from 32 families in Banpukarawan village of her locality Ambedkarnagar were tired of defecating in the open. Gayatri Devi's video story on this centuries-old problem highlighted the plight of village women. She has approached the village head and district administration for quick action and the building of toilets on a priority basis. To further an impact, Gayatri's stories end with the number of the government or panchayat official and she encourages viewers to call up the officials and push for action.
From taunts to praise
Dalit women in India don't have an easy life at all. They face open stiff opposition from so-called ‘upper’ caste people and are often denied basic rights like drinking water, employment and access to land tenure.
Despite her drive to educate herself and find a job of choice, Gayatri was subject to humiliation by men of the upper caste communities when she returned late from her social work activities. "Yes, it was very tough. Men from the upper caste community used to make catcalls, pass lewd remarks, say nasty things about me, and question my working hours. My community people always supported me so I never cared for what these people said," the Community Correspondent says.
Today, with 14 years in the social sector, 8 years of being a leading Community Correspondent with Video Volunteers, and bringing about beneficial changes in the community, Gayatri commands respect from all corners. "Now people call me Deviji, and some ask if I will contest elections so that I can work even more for the people! When I fall sick they come to check on me. This love and response from people are very heartening," says Gayatri.
While most Dalit women live and function quietly under the shadow of their husbands and inlaws, Gayatri has broken that mold by becoming an action-oriented community leader with family support. "I always had this internal drive to do something in life. But I want to thank my son and husband for backing me in my work," says Gayatri, recalling that she started her NGO with her 1.5-year-old swaddled on her hip.
Gayatri's tireless and result-driven journalism has made her an award-winning community correspondent and a valued team member at VV. Her 2016 video story on MNREGA workers demanding job cards was awarded the 'Most Viewed' Youtube video at VV's annual meet in 2017. To date, that video has garnered 10.5 million views.
"I also received the Global Achievers Award 2019 under the category of social work given by the National Anti-Harassment Foundation, Bhopal," she exclaims.
Her strong views on girls’ education were part of a media interview she gave to a leading Hindi news channel that was reporting on her remarkable life journey. Left In laws In Anger, Wage Labor And Set Up 'Jan Vikas Kendra' Organization
Gayatri is also a part of Video Volunteers' campaign #KhelBadal to dismantle patriarchy. The campaign is taking on patriarchy through stories of women and men who face, negotiate and challenge patriarchy in everyday life — at home, at work, at school, in cultural and public spaces. Under the campaign, she makes films that capture the nuances of routine, normalized gender discrimination, stories of change and runs Gender Discussion Clubs where lively, introspective conversations around gender equality and patriarchy happen.
Always on a learning curve
One might think that two decades of doing ground-breaking social work and charting a successful career is a good enough achievement to now slow down a bit and take it easy. But then that's not the Gayatri Devi that most people know.
So far, Gayatri has produced 72 videos around issues affecting the community through which she has been able to positively impact 88,0343 people's lives.
COVID -19 survival
When the coronavirus pandemic struck India and the nation went into a complete lockdown in March 2020, Gayatri was also caught off guard initially. "I was worried during this period for my community members because we could not step out to do video stories. Several people I knew were either in need of money or food rations and I immediately appraised VV about the situation. They sent me INR 25,000 to buy basic food rations for the community members in need," she says. The fearless community journalist could not be confined indoors for long. Camera in hand she set out to tell stories of migrant laborers who were stranded till the travel sanctions were eased.
Her June 2020 report on the hardships faced by members of the transgender community in her area due to the lack of government-issued ration cards was well received by the block development officer. The story's impact led to three local shopkeepers volunteering to give free rations to transgenders like Pinki, Babita, and 10 others of the marginalized community.
Way ahead in community activism
Giving her own life story as an example, Gayatri says that the only spark that can ignite the fire of independence among girls in rural India is education.
“I have faced a lot of hardship to get educated and I wish other girls do not have to go through the same struggles. Education is the key to opening many doors for girls. Education is the key to equality,” the resilient community journalist says.
Recently, Gayatri won a fellowship from CSEI, under which she is training 18 girls to run educational centers in villages. Through these centers, girls in villages will be taught English and Maths.
Breaking bias and steering away from ingrained social manipulations is anything but easy for females in rural India. Gayatri Devi has used her innate resilience and community journalism to create a roadmap and template for girls to follow their dreams and goals.
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