In Ms Sharrock’s International Women’s Day assembly this year, she shared the story of Khabar Lahariya, India’s only newspaper entirely produced by women and began by introducing us to the inspiring women behind this pioneering newspaper:

I want to introduce you to Meera Devi – chief reporter and Bureau Chief of Khabar Lahariya, India’s only newspaper entirely produced by women.

I’d also like to introduce you to Suneeta Prajapati; one of her most fearless reporters and Shyamkali Devi, a newbie who is learning how to be a journalist.

Along with 27 other women this group of female reporters has overcome caste and gender biases to bring in the words of one supporter –  “light and justice to India” despite facing opposition from all sides and considerable personal dangers.

Today we are celebrating International Womens’ Day – a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.

Celebrating the global achievements of women everywhere can feel like a huge task so in an attempt to personalise it I want to celebrate with you this particular group of women whom I find incredibly inspirational.   I learned about these women from a fantastic documentary called Writing with Fire which can currently be watched on BBC iPlayer as part of the Storyville series.

I highly recommend it, as do Rotten Tomatoes who have given it a very rare 100% approval rating.  It was also, I believe, Oscar nominated.

The movie follows this group of young women and in particular Meera, Suneeta and Shyamkali as they learn to use mobile phones to document their community’s needs and question those in power.  Many of the women have little experience with technology. More than a few don’t own mobile phones and yet we all know this is now vital if you want to communicate on a large scale.

The story opens in Uttar Pradesh, an Indian province notorious for crimes against women. Danger is magnified for women who are Dalits, the name for people born into the most oppressed castes in this rigid social hierarchy.

Chief reporter Meera Devi leads a team of journalists, holding up smartphones and recording interviews with people whom the country’s mainstream media might otherwise never capture.

“In our region, a journalist meant you are an upper-caste man,” Devi said in the documentary, “A Dalit woman journalist was unthinkable.”

Until she and her friends made it happen.

The film makers follow the reporters like a shadow as they talk to survivors of violent crimes, families who have lost loved ones to mafia violence, who only trust the women of Khabar Lahariya with their stories.

The women exist in the crosshairs of the very issues they cover. The film shows them taking buses or rickshaws home to poverty, sexism and family health issues. Devi, a mother who was married at 14, is told by her husband that the newspaper is destined to fail and that she should stick to her housework. Those assertions are met with Devi’s polite but firm, “I disagree.”

Meera Devi holds advanced degrees in both political science and education, Meera worries that, with all her responsibilities outside the home, her daughter is falling behind in school.

Compelling her to continue is her conviction that reporting can actually change things for the better.

The women’s quest is both political and personal. Meera says that journalism is “the essence of democracy,” but there is also a strong element of self-liberation in her words. In the largely patriarchal Indian society, these Dalit women, many of whom travel only on foot, are doing more than a job: They’ve created a calling for themselves.

Suneeta lives with her parents in a poor village with unsteady electricity. Investigating corruption in the same mines where she once worked as a child laborer, she finds herself ringed by angry miners demanding she leave. Not only does she not back down, but she also manages to ingratiate herself into their confidences. Her exposé becomes national news. Over the course of the film, the paper’s YouTube presence swells to 150 million views.

Other stories, some involving the learning-on-the-job Shyamkali, result in the repair of roadways and irrigation systems, and even challenge violent, far-right Hindu nationalists. In one particularly alarming scene, Meera interviews a seemingly calm religious group leader brandishing a sword.

The film doesn’t hide the personal toll on these women. Crusaders though they may be, they voice throughout the film their deep doubts and fears. When Suneeta, who briefly leaves the profession because she worries about the shame she might bring to her family, at one point she says that “sometimes I think it is a sin being born a woman.”

The film show the women as they see themselves — not as victims of their circumstances, but powerful and determined in their resistance. They know the risks that come with their work, and fear being harmed or killed for reporting on corruption, but what’s important to them is that they do it anyway.

“Being a journalist gives me the power to fight for justice,” Suneeta says. “And that’s what I want to be remembered for.”

The women are often seen standing alone in crowds of men, having back and forths with those telling them to “get out” or to “stay within their limits.”

“Instead of patronising me, why don’t you give me an interview?” Suneeta asks one man who yells at her. Yet one by one, the other men in that crowd volunteered to speak with her.

The filmmakers leave it to the Dalit women themselves to show in their everyday lives how they are contending with and overcoming systems meant to hold them down. Their success redefines what it means to be powerful and their story is incredibly inspirational.

 

I want to witness their courage and celebrate their success by sharing their story with you – a room full of young people who I hope will go out into the world ready to live with conviction, passion and determination.    Whilst I hope you will never face the challenges these women face, you will face your own challenges and find your own exciting opportunities – you will find women and men ready to support you – and women and men who may not.  As you face the big wide world your network, your friends, your work colleagues become so important – in the end Suneeta returns to the paper because of Meera’s support.

Every year I ask year 6 at interview to tell me someone they admire and I am always humbled when they tell me about a marvellous woman close to home who inspires them everyday. This year I was really touched when two girls told me about pupils in the senior school they admire, one in year 10 and one in year 11.   Just marvellous.

So as we celebrate International Women’s’ Day I invite you to wear something purple to show your support for women everywhere, there will be many women who inspire you – some close to home, others in the public sphere – certainly today I am wearing my purple to celebrate Meera, Suneeta and Shymkali.