Hers is not a story of merely struggling through poverty and achieving solvency in life; nor is it an over-glorified tale of success that development workers often enjoy sharing to exhibit the purported effectiveness of their activities.
Munira’s story is sewn with sufferings, painted with plights, saturated with sorrows and soaked in tears; it is a tale of her unbending willpower, indomitable spirits, relentless hard work and the eventual smile of victory against a life marked by excruciating poverty.
Her full name is Munira Akter Maya, now a confident 24-year-old woman, mother of a fourth-grader son, and torchbearer for her husband Maruf Hossain Biplob, 38, who once lost his way and would probably have to forever live in disgrace hadn’t Maya stood so firm against all odds.
“He borrowed about Tk 5 lakh to go abroad for work. But he was conned out of everything by some unscrupulous overseas manpower traders,” Munira said as we were sitting at the tiny front yard of her house in Haybatpur, a small village under Shyamnagar upazila some 60km from the Satkhira district town in Southern Bangladesh. The Indian border was only a few kilometres from her house.
“And then began our real nightmares. The money-lenders would come to us day and night wanting money. Unruly as they were, they would often threaten us with consequences. But where could we find so much money? … At one stage, my husband fled to India to save himself. This left me in a worse situation.
“There was no end to insults, Sir. The money-lenders would hurl every abusive word in their stock at me. I am a woman. How could I possibly counter them? My head would hang in shame,” Munira stopped, attempting to hold back her tears, but unsuccessfully.”
“While I was grappling to support myself and son and to pay the debt, Jagaroni Chakra Foundation (one of the 24 Partner Organisations through which the Programme was implemented) came here with the PRIME,” she continued after recomposing herself. “That was in 2011. I became a member and was trained on embroidering and designing sarees. Later, I received a grant of Tk 20,000 and took a loan of another Tk 20,000 to buy the raw materials to start the business. This was the turning point of my life.”
When she joined the PRIME, her monthly income was around Tk 1,500 which she would make by rearing chickens and working as a maid. Within a year, she became a trainer under the PRIME and started earning around Tk 14,000 each month. “At the same time, I would work on designing and embroidering sarees at night”.
“Gradually, I repaid all the debts and my husband returned home. I bought him a motorcycle so that he could earn on his own.”
Motorcycles are very popular among commuters in southern Bangladesh. The communication infrastructure there is so poor that four-wheelers cannot operate outside the main towns. Hence, motorcycles are hired, much like the taxis, for travelling from one village to another or to the town areas.
“We had no land. We used to live in a tiny rented house. A few years ago, I bought this piece of three-decimal land with my own income and constructed this house. I have a home now,” Maya said, pointing to her two-room wooden house on a mud platform.
“Now I take work orders from contractors in Dhaka and distribute the work among the women I have trained. Around 60 women work for me round the year and the number goes as high as 150 before the festival seasons like Eid and Durga Puja.”
Maya, however, doesn’t make a lot of money. “My monthly income stands between Tk 8,000 and Tk 10,000. During the peak season, it goes up to Tk 15,000-20,000.”
“I definitely could make more from the orders I get. But I want the women who work for me get what they deserve. I know how it feels to have nothing, to feel deprived. So, it fills my heart with joy when I realise that I have pulled not only myself out of extreme poverty, but also others in the process.”
Her growing economic strength has also resulted in her empowerment. “All my relatives, who used to ignore me in the past, now seek advice from me before planning something. They value my opinion. My husband respects my decisions. Even those money-lenders, who once would treat me like a lesser human, gives me ‘Salaam’ when they see me,” said a beaming Munira, whose Arabic name itself means ‘luminous’.
Asked about her future plans, she says she wants to establish direct contact with the wholesalers in Dhaka, instead of relying on the middlemen. “I also want to rent a place where my workers can sit together and work. And when I have saved enough money, I want to open a showroom at a prime location in Shyamnagar town.”
As we were preparing to leave her house, Munira said, “Sir, I could never thank you enough for what you have done. May Allah bless you all!”