In the late dusk light shining purple-grey after a rain shower, Sarita Santoshini is speaking with a group of women in southern Rwanda. She asks them about enrollment in health insurance, access to maternal health care, and if their health services are satisfactory. Sarita is the perfect person to ask these questions. She crafts her inquiries in a way these women can relate to, listens pensively as they respond to her questions, and follows up quickly. Sarita’s reportage amplifies women’s issues, and her home Assam state in India is one of the first places she began reporting on gender.
“Many states in India have witch hunting,” Sarita recounts. “Women are targeted as witches and killed for it.” She followed the the phenomenon closely in Assam, and after a witch hunting bill that passed in her home state, Sarita spontaneously pitched the story as a feature to Al Jazeera. They accepted it the same day. “It was just the most satisfying thing I’d ever done. Going to really remote parts of the country and have people share their experiences and trauma with me. I felt very privileged to be able to do that. It was very humbling, and I was very grateful. I felt I was seeing a part of India that I’d never seen.”
Prior to her path as a freelance journalist, Sarita studied media and communications at university in Bombay. Following graduation, she pursued travel writing before transitioning into journalism. “It became unsatisfying very quickly,” she remembers about her post-grad years. “There was no meaning to what I was doing, I just felt like I could be doing so much more.” Sarita’s studies hadn’t prepared her for pursuing the stories she was passionate about, and though she loved to write, she began looking for alternatives. “My home state was often not covered in the media, or if it was the coverage wasn’t how it should be,” says Sarita. She made the move from Bombay back to Assam, and began her career.
Today, Sarita’s stories are eponymous with development and human rights, often through a gendered lens. But there is no specific gender beat in India, especially in the remote areas where Sarita began reporting from after she transitioned into full-time reporting. “The northeast of India has some of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country and the world, there’s also a significant problem with trafficking and drug abuse. Some parts are still in the midst of conflict; it’s remote, there’s low employment opportunities – these issues collide and they affect women far more.” Soon, Sarita began accumulating significant bylines published internationally; Foreign Policy, Christian Science Monitor, Public Radio International, and more. As one of the few journalists based outside of the capital, she had a unique understanding of the challenges faced by citizens of some of the most diverse states in India.
After three years of reporting in her native Assam State, Sarita branched out to reporting in other regions of the nation. There she experienced some of the same gender disparities that she reported on professionally, this time in her own life. “It’s hard for a woman in India to do this kind of work because of restrictions on mobility,” Sarita says. “I was looking for a place in Kolkata, and nobody was willing to rent an apartment to a single woman who was not in a conventional career. People don’t always understand what I do.”
In 2017, Sarita was selected for a prestigious International Reporting Project (IRP) fellowship that took her to Uganda for a month, where she reported on girls’ access to education in South Sudanese refugee camps, women baking cakes to overcome trauma following insurgency in northern Uganda, and more. “It was one of the first time’s I’d stepped out of India to work,” says Sarita, “And it really showed me that I could do this kind of reporting.”
Sarita reporting in Nyanza District.
The International Women’s Media Foundation’s reporting trip to Rwanda was a natural fit for her, especially after she noted the parallels between Rwanda and India. “Culturally there are a lot of similarities between Rwanda and India, and there are many similar health and gender issues,” Sarita says. Her prior work in maternal health rights and malaria has informed her perspective and work during her IWMF reporting trip, especially in observing Rwandan solutions to malaria that aren’t yet being considered in India. But the greatest advantage to her time as a fellow with the IWMF, Sarita says, are the relationships she’s made. “We can learn so much from each other,” says Sarita. “Working with other women and seeing how they work, forming relationships. That’s the greatest advantage.”
Now based in Delhi, Sarita is available for freelance work and assignments requiring international travel. Follow her on Twitter @ssantoshini.
Maggie Andresen, 2019 Rwanda Fellow