31/12/2014 8:02 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

Challenging Notions On Women Participation: Community Radio In India

With them playing key roles as volunteers, community reporters and programme producers, rural women in India have found a new medium to voice their opinions.

Women from rural northern India raise their hands during a protest in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010.The protestors alleged the government was acquiring their fertile lands for different industrial projects including a nuclear plant at prices much lower than prevailing market rates. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

India remains the land of extreme patriarchal influence, women having little control over their bodies and lives, especially in rural areas. In the struggle to empower women to take control over their lives, community media plays a significant role, evolving women into positive deviants. But with their access and participation in media remaining a big question, how can a country, which faces the contrasts in development, utilize such a low cost technology for facilitating empowerment.

At the age of 33, with a family of three children and husband along with in-laws to take care of, Vinaben's life has changed for the better since the day she joined the nearby community radio station. For a high school pass out, she had never imagined herself sitting in front of the console, creating programmes for her community development and being a household voice. Initially coordinating with women in different villages for training, Vina joined the radio station having learned to operate the recorder, which, for her now is like a lifeline, connecting people to realities.

As a local medium to development and problem solving, India's acceptance of community radio came much later in 2002. Operating at a low frequency in a small area of reach, a community radio station is seen to operate by the community, for the community, in the community and on issues relating to lives of the community. In the context of India, as a local answer to employment, training and challenging patriarchal structures, community radio has been gaining momentum for women participation. With them playing key roles as volunteers, community reporters and programme producers, rural women in India have found a new medium to voice their opinions.

Researches and experiences demonstrate that women's empowerment and community development go hand in hand, making women's access to information critical for development at large. While researchers argue that sustainable poverty reduction and community development are possible when women and their interests are given top priority, women are the primary care takers in the community, responsible for providing and upholding the educational and cultural health of the community. With them facing the dual baggage of patriarchy and poverty, a medium that operates in the vicinity should be tapped on by the development agencies in the country. Seen as a source of identity, inclusion and innovation, which is an available, accessible, affordable and acceptable medium for women to engage with, community radio stations operating around need an environment that is conducive.

What is critical in this is the limited access of women to information and education. Not just as a tool for community development but a community radio can have immediate impact on challenging the gender realities in the nooks and corners of the country. India comes as a country where, on one hand rural women are not allowed to step out of the four-walls of the house, on the other educated urban women face patriarchal foundations despite being economically independent. In such a situation, inclusion of women in development discourses through community radio can significantly challenge structures of patriarchy, introducing alternative practices, promoting critical thinking. As the deprived gender, a woman in a community radio breaks the patriarchal shackles, stepping out of the mental walls. Unless support and constant encouragement from social perspective is made available, converting a technology like this into a social emancipation tool remains far from reality.

Involvement of women in community radio projects in India have moved beyond identifying the sex of the listeners to involvement of women issues and facilitation of women participation. They are seen influencing the nature of messages that are created and disseminated in the communities for larger development. With constant community participation, the women impacts stories from ground and bring to forefront the resultant personal as well as community development, promoting girl child education, better nutrition, government schemes implementation, environmental care, and prevention from gender based violence as well.

The story of Vina brings out the issues involving women participation in development debate. With a variety of reasons, self-development being one, Vina and many women like her face a number of challenges owing to personal barriers and community. In the case of Vina, her decision of being constantly in travel mode did not come well with her in-laws. While she stepped out of her house daily to interact openly with men and women in the community, people did the 'look', doubting her character. But over the years the way her voice took over the radio sets in these houses, people realised she was doing a task for the betterment of the whole community. Today, the same people welcome her into their homes, helping her conduct discussions with women, facilitating behaviour change.

The impact of participation moves beyond the present domains. With a more aware human who gets an opportunity to fulfil her dreams unlike many women of her background, they dream further for their children as well. Those who shunned her start seeing her as a community role model.

Arundhati Roy once pointed out, "There is no such thing as voiceless. There are only the ones deliberately silenced or preferably unheard." In the context of India, a community radio acts as a participatory tool not just challenging the gender roles designed by the society but facilitating assessment of resources, opportunities and facilities available to the genders, redistributing power to the marginalised. What becomes imperative in this case is that such stories of success get transferred and transformed into larger examples, spreading across different cultures and communities in India.