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