Sav­ing to leave poverty be­hind in Bangladesh


Ar­jina Khatun, now 47, was too poor to go to school. She was mar­ried off when she was only 13. Af­ter just 13 months of mar­riage, her hus­band di­vorced her be­cause her fam­ily was un­able to pay dowry. That didn’t bring her world to an end. In fact, not only did she turn her own life around, but she changed the lives of many women in Tara­ganj, a sub-dis­trict of the dis­trict Rang­pur.

Ar­jina’s sheer de­ter­mi­na­tion and grit brought an end to child mar­riage in the area, and put a stop to the op­pres­sion of women. Her far­sight­ed­ness helped women to drive poverty away from their lives.

The scene at Ar­jina’s vil­lage in Pan­chayet­para is a pleas­ant one. There are cows, calves and goats wan­der­ing around the fields and yards. Gone are the di­lap­i­dated thatched huts. Most of the houses have sturdy roofs of cor­ru­gated tin, glis­ten­ing in the sun. There are many semi-brick houses too. All the houses have san­i­tary la­trines, pure drink­ing wa­ter fa­cil­i­ties and elec­tric­ity. The ponds are full of fish and the house­hold gar­dens are over­flow­ing with veg­eta­bles.

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

Ar­jina is at home, at­tend­ing a meet­ing with her as­so­ci­a­tion mem­bers. When asked about her life, her eyes glis­ten with un­shed tears. She goes back to the past, “I never had the chance to go to school. My fa­ther was a day la­borer. 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 (BDT) 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, Ar­jina re­turned to her fa­ther’s home. Her fa­ther died soon af­ter her re­turn and she found her­self in a dire sit­u­a­tion. She took up work­ing in peo­ple’s house­holds. She earned a lit­tle through this hard phys­i­cal la­bor, 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.

‘Put aside a fist­ful’

One day Ar­jina gath­ered other girls in her house, girls who were suf­fer­ing and de­prived. 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 Ar­jina formed an as­so­ci­a­tion of 40 women. It was called the Pan­chayet­para Work­ing Women’s Group. Ev­ery­day 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 Ar­jina be­gan sav­ing two taka a day. Ev­ery week they would save BDT 560. 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. Poverty be­gan to fade.

On Fe­bru­ary 10, 2006 Prothom Alo pub­lished a fea­ture on Ar­jina. Upon read­ing about her, the non­govern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion (NGO) CARE came for­ward. They trained the women in house­hold veg­etable gar­den­ing and in­door mush­room cul­ti­va­tion.

Next the NGO Brac come for­ward and formed a 300-mem­ber as­so­ci­a­tion, Pal­lisamaj, with Ar­jina as the head. Ar­jina also ex­panded her Work­ing Women’s Group to 170 mem­bers. They now de­posit BDT 20 a week and di- vide it up af­ter ev­ery three years. With that they have leased out 21 cows so far. They now have BDT 500,000 in their sav­ings fund.

With the help of these two as­so­ci­a­tions, Ar­jina forges ahead in her fight against child mar­riage, dowry, un­just di­vorce and the op­pres­sion of women. So far they have pre­vented 21 child mar­riages. The as­so­ci­a­tion has helped 37 poor girls 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 the need ever arises.

Ar­jina her­self now owns eight goats, four cows and many ducks and chick­ens. She has bought a con­sid­er­able amount of land. She has a tube well and a san­i­tary la­trine. She has a two-room tin­roofed semi-brick house. In her yard she has planted mango, jack­fruit and pa­paya trees.

House­wife Asma Khatun, a mem­ber of the as­so­ci­a­tion, says she was mar­ried off when she was just 15. She would work as a maid in the houses of the area. She would have to bear her hus­band’s mis­be­haviour. Now that very same hus­band has a rice busi­ness with her funds. They have two chil­dren. She has de­cided not to have any more chil­dren and her hus­band has sup­ported her de­ci­sion.

Anisur Rah­man, chair­man of the Tara­ganj Upazila Parishad, says, “Ar­jina has made us proud. We up­hold her as a shin­ing ex­am­ple in var­i­ous meet­ings and fo­rums.” Ar­jina says, “It is women who first have to come for­ward to help women in dis­tress.” She dreams of a day when the women will work shoul­der to shoul­der with the men of her vil­lage, equal in dig­nity and re­spect.

Hasan Raza, Prothom Alo

Ar­jina Khatun is seen col­lect­ing rice from the mem­bers of her sav­ings group.

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