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CityPress - - Opportunity Index -

rjina Khatun, now 47, was too poor to go to school and so she got mar­ried when she was only 13. But af­ter 13 months of mar­riage, her hus­band di­vorced her be­cause her fam­ily was un­able to pay the dowry.

That gave Khatun a chance to turn her life around – and the lives of many women in Tara­ganj, a sub­dis­trict of Rang­pur in Bangladesh.

Khatun’s sheer de­ter­mi­na­tion has also put an end to child mar­riage in the area and halted the overt op­pres­sion of women.

The scene at Khatun’s vil­lage in Pan­chayet­para is a pleas­ant one. There are cows, calves and goats wan­der­ing around the fields and yards. Gone are the di­lap­i­dated thatch huts and most of the houses have sturdy roofs of cor­ru­gated tin, glis­ten­ing in the sun. There are many semib­rick houses too.

All the houses have san­i­tary la­trines, clean drink­ing wa­ter fa­cil­i­ties and elec­tric­ity. The ponds have fish, and house­hold gar­dens over­flow with veg­eta­bles.

Ev­ery­one gives credit to Khatun for the change in the vil­lage. Mah­bubul Is­lam, a school­teacher in the vil­lage, says: “It is through Ar­jina’s hard work that to­day the girls of the vil­lage are well aware of health and ed­u­ca­tion. They are treated well and re­spected in their in-laws’ homes.”

Khatun is at home, at­tend­ing a meet­ing with her as­so­ci­a­tion mem­bers.

When asked about her life, she ex­plains: “I never had the chance to go to school. My fa­ther was a day labourer. When my mother died in 1989, I was mar­ried off.

“I will never be able to for­get how my hus­band would tor­ture me. Just be­cause we couldn’t pay him 9 000 Bangladeshi taka (R1 424) in dowry, he broke my right arm. He kept me starv­ing for two whole days and then di­vorced me.”

Freed from the prison of her hus­band’s house, Khatun re­turned to her fa­ther’s home.

Her fa­ther died soon af­ter and she found her­self in dire straits. She started work­ing in other peo­ple’s houses. She earned a lit­tle through this hard phys­i­cal labour, and scraped and saved till she man­aged to buy two goats and nine chick­ens. The hens laid eggs, the goats had kids. A dream grew in her heart.

One day Khatun gath­ered girls who were suf­fer­ing and de­prived in her house.

She said: “From now on, put aside a fist­ful of rice ev­ery­day be­fore you cook.” They de­cided they would thus save up rice, fist­ful by fist­ful, sell it and do some­thing big.

In 2002, Khatun formed an as­so­ci­a­tion of 40 women. It was called the Pan­chayet­para Work­ing Women’s Group. Ev­ery day they saved 40 fist­fuls of rice. At the end of the week, they held a lottery and handed over the rice to one of their mem­bers. She bought ducks and chick­ens with the money. In this man­ner, ev­ery week a dif­fer­ent woman would be given the 40 fist­fuls of rice and in 40 weeks, their vil­lage and their house­holds were bustling with ducks and chick­ens. This brought in cash for the women and their fam­i­lies.

Next Khatun be­gan sav­ing two taka a day. Ev­ery week they would save 560 taka. They would hold a lottery and a goat would be bought for the win­ner of the week.

They al­ready had their ducks and chick­ens. Now they grad­u­ally all owned goats too. It was a sure path out of poverty.

In 2006, the not-for-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion CARE read a fea­ture about Khatun and of­fered to help. They trained the women in house­hold veg­etable gar­den­ing and in­door mush­room cul­ti­va­tion.

Then Brac, an in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion based in Bangladesh, came for­ward and formed a 300-mem­ber as­so­ci­a­tion, Pal­lisamaj, with Khatun as the head. Khatun also ex­panded her Work­ing Women’s Group to 170 mem­bers. They now de­posit 20 taka a week and di­vide it af­ter ev­ery three years.

With that they have leased 21 cows and have 500 000 taka in their sav­ings fund.

With the help of these two as­so­ci­a­tions, Khatun forges ahead in her fight against child mar­riage, the dowry sys­tem, un­just di­vorce and the op­pres­sion of women.

So far they have pre­vented 21 child mar­riages, while as­sist­ing 37 poor girls with­out dowries to get mar­ried. They have given pen­cils, pens, books and other study sup­plies to 61 poor stu­dents. They have recorded the blood group of each mem­ber so they can help any­one in the vil­lage with blood if needed.

Khatun her­self now owns eight goats, four

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