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“Making Our Own News” – Sharing Women’s Social Knowledge in Sri Lanka

FrontlineSMS has huge potential as a tool for news-sharing, and this user guest post shows an example of this from a womens news network in Sri Lanka.

By Ananda Galappatti, Minmini News

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Minmini News is a local SMS news service for women in the Batticaloa District of Eastern Sri Lanka. Batticaloa is the poorest district of Sri Lanka, still slowly emerging from the destruction of a three-decade-long civil war that ended in 2009. Throughout the war, and following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that struck Batticaloa’s coastline, women played a crucial role in responding to the difficult circumstances that their families and communities had to endure. The same is true now, during the difficult recovery after the war. However, the important concerns and remarkable experiences of women in Batticaloa are rarely reflected in the mainstream media that reaches their towns and villages. The news they receive, it seems, is not produced with them in mind.

The Model

In mid-2010, a small informal collective associated with women’s groups in Batticaloa decided to trial a model for sourcing, producing and sharing news relevant to women of the area. The small founding group decided to field test the model through two pilot-testing phases in 2011, with small groups of 15-30 readers, who also served as the sources of news. There was initially some scepticism from colleagues and friends about the added value of providing women’s news by SMS. However, the data from the pilot phase showed that not only were readers overwhelming positive about the service, but that it exposed them to novel and useful information, and had some influence on their perspectives.  Minmini Seithihal (translation: Firefly News) went public in August 2011.

The model tested continues to be used, and is directly based around sourcing news from the strong network of women community workers in different parts of the district. News information is collected fact-checked and written-up in text messages by a central ‘news team’ of one or two women. The prepared news messages can then be reviewed by an editor, and between one and three messages are sent out to readers (who subscribe to the service via text message) through FrontlineSMS each day.

Content

Minmini News delivers a broad range of content to its readers.  It provides information about public services relevant to women, including: details on government health clinics, special mobile services for basic official documentation or land registration, services for migrant workers and their families, or information about government schemes for persons with disability. Minmini News also covers local crises, such as floods or local conflicts between neighbouring communities. It also reports on services for gender-based violence and challenges faced by women in post-conflict recovery.

In addition, Minmini News  hashighlighted women’s achievements, both large and small; within Batticaloa and beyond.  It covered issues related to livelihoods, costs of living and accessibility of markets for women’s products. It drew attention to local cultural activities and social interventions by women. Minmini News represented a series of life-histories of women whose lives illustrated the diversity of experience within the district.

In all its coverage, Minmini News has tried to highlight the meaning that the events or processes have for the lives of women – often drawing attention to individual stories to convey this. However, rather than provide explicit editorial commentary on issues, SMS stories are used to provide a series of factual reports for readers to interpret themselves. The stories themselves are sourced from the team of volunteer ‘reporters’, and also from readers.

Examples of Minmini News SMS Messages (English Translations of Tamil News Items)

Impact

Independent interviews with readers and women contributors to Minmini News showed that the service was appreciated, and that it had changed their relationships to consumption of and sharing of news and information. One reader said, “it is difficult for me or others to go out and get news in our environment. Now we all have mobile phones in our hands, so it is good to get news from where we are [located]. Without any expense, I am getting news [on things happening] around me.”  Another said she felt that women often found it socially more difficult than men to share their views or information publicly, and therefore, “were treated as second class [citizens].” Minmini News and its content, she felt, offered an opportunity for women’s abilities to be highlighted and their views to be taken seriously.

In another  remarkable case, after hearing a news story via Minmini News, a community worker assisted a family to file a report on a woman who had been missing in the Middle East for over a year. When she was traced, it was found that she had been severely maltreated, and she was repatriated for care and recovery at home. Many of the effects of Minmini News are more subtle, but it is clear women who are subscribing to the service feel that the way they are engaged with mainstream media has changed, and they are now more sensitive to issues related to women’s lives and rights.

Financing Ethos

Minmini News seeks to operate at a minimal cost. The start-up equipment (an old laptop and 3G dongle) was donated by members of the news team, who also collectively paid for the cost of messages during the pilot phase. Since its public launch, the policy of Minmini News has been to finance the service through small voluntary or in-kind contributions from its readers. Whilst the news team donate their time and personal resources to support the minimal operating infrastructure, Minmini News readers contribute to the cost of SMS messages by ‘reloading’ (ie. topping up) the pay-as-you-go number used by the service.  These contributions are effectively pooled so that all readers may benefit from what is paid. Those who can afford more, pay more so that others can receive the service. Others pay when or what they can.

Scaling Up

Minmini News is now entering a new phase, with active recruitment of women readers in rural communities in Batticaloa. This brings new opportunities in terms of prospects for broader sources of news, but also challenges in terms of verification. Plus, the financing model that has worked very well with a 100+ readers in the first phase of the service will also be tested as the service scales up. Minmini News is will be looking to expand in future, fostering similar networks in other districts of Sri Lanka, through which relevant news from local women in other areas can be exchanged bilaterally between ‘sister’ services.

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Here at FrontlineSMS we really look forward to staying in touch with Ananda and all those at Minmini News, and hearing how this innovative news service develops! o/

About the author of this post:

Ananda

Ananda Galappatti is a medical anthropologist and a practitioner in the field of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in situations of emergency and chronic adversity. He is a co-founder of the journal Intervention, the online network mhpss.net and the social business The Good Practice Group.  Ananda lives in the town of Batticaloa on the East coast of Sri Lanka, where he volunteers as an editor for Minmini News.

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