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