From where I stand: “I wanted my daughters to know who makes the decisions at home.”
Shahana Begum from Cumilla, Bangladesh, stood up to her abusive spouse to break free from a life of violence. With support from UN Women, she is now on a mission to help other survivors speak up against gender-based violence.
Interviewed by Nubayra Jeheen
I was forcefully married off at the age of 16 to a man who only knew violence. The miserable household held my parent-in-laws, brother and sister-in-law, and my unemployed husband. Within three months of my marriage, I realized that my husband had no affinity to get himself a job, and that is when the abuse began. It was always for dowry, to fund his failed ventures one after the other while the rest of the household fell deeper into the grasp of poverty. My family, whose socio-economic condition was no better than my husband’s, went on paying him in whatever possible to appease him - to stop him forcing me into ‘social suicide’ by sending me back to my family. The shame of that would make the physical scars of the abuse seem tame in comparison.
I had my eldest daughter when I was 18 and two more not long after. Thoughts about impending abuse, both physical and verbal, would keep me terrified the entire day. After my daughters were born, this fear increased tenfold - now both for myself and my children. My in-laws could only helplessly watch me bear it all, while the local government officials paid no heed or, worse, made empty promises.
Accustomed to abuse and abject poverty by then, I looked at my daughters, took a good look at myself, and decided enough was enough.
It took me 15 long years to find this inner strength. All this became possible when I was introduced to Grameen Bank and their microfinance program. With their kind support and eye-opening courtyard sessions, I not only stood up for myself, but I also gained skills to make something out of my life. And I wanted my daughters to know who makes the decisions at home.
Using the microfinance loan, I ventured into the cottage industry and started making furniture made of bamboo. I had learned this trade from my mother-in-law and with her encouragement, I started to sell these at the local bazaar and gained praises for my craftsmanship. Using the profits made, I supported my daughters’ education, bore all household expenses, looked after my elderly in-laws and became a financially independent woman. All three of my daughters are married with their own families now. My husband has not mended his ways, but he knows better than to meddle with a woman who does not fear him anymore. The power dynamic has shifted a long while back.
Since then, I chose to fight for other survivors like myself. I decided to make something out of my misery. Whenever I witness any such incidents in my village, I am the first one to intervene even though I have to endure hostilities and bad-mouthing from my community. This encouraged me to become a Changemaker Activist for UN Women. Now, I can urge the perpetrators to change their behaviour and help other gender-based violence survivors realize and harness their power within, just like I did.”