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Munni, the women’s rights activist

  • Published at 03:19 pm January 5th, 2020
Munni smiling outside her house. Photo: Courtesy

Gender roles can flip entirely at home if you educate and empower a woman

Munni’s life had been a long cycle of abuse. Her father mistreated her and did not pay for family expenses, such as education, food, and housing. Her mother worked and supported the whole family instead. Munni’s mother was not able to pay for her higher education however and had to get her married early. Unfortunately Munni was unable to break out of the cycle and continued to be abused by her in-laws, unsupported by her husband. She was not allowed to continue her education because her in-laws thought she was “too pretty” and would run off with another man. She was confined to her home most of the time, taking care of her two daughters and doing chores.

When Cyclone Aila hit in 2009, dynamics in the household changed. First of all, Munni and her family had to start living on the street because their house was destroyed. Munni had to find fresh drinking water every day, and on one of her trips a journalist asked her to share what was happening on the ground in the aftermath of the storm. Munni told him that her community needed food, medicine, and water - the basics for survival. She was not afraid to speak up. 

Her husband’s aunt, a local government official, saw her confidence and encouraged her to join Shushilon as a leader in 2011. She saw that Munni had the power to raise the problems of her community to those who needed to hear. At Shushilon, Munni delved into trainings, taking one on the issue of child marriage. She was so inspired that she decided to start her own weekly meetings with women and girls on the issue in her home, which had been rebuilt by that point. 

In 2014, she continued her work for women by distributing free sanitary pads in her community through the NGO Friendship. After the project ended, she took on the responsibility of continuing distribution, with a slightly different model. Her husband would buy pads from the market and she would sell them at the same price, making no profit but making pads more accessible to women in her community. They were much more comfortable coming to her than purchasing them in the bazaar, often too shy to do so. When Munni saw that this was an issue, she started another weekly training out of her own home for young women on how and why they should use sanitary pads. That same year, Munni joined the Police Union Committee as the female vice president, using her position to stop eve-teasing and child marriage, protecting women and girls in her community. She was directly involved in stopping the marriage of Mahua, another animator.

When she joined PROTIC in 2016, she was able to focus on herself and improve her agricultural practices. She used to grow vegetables and had 19 goats at one point before Aila but these were all difficult endeavours after the cyclone because of high salinity and unknown diseases that caused her livestock to die all at once. However, her smartphone apps gave her the knowledge and tools to start agricultural work again with greater confidence. Munni learned how to use organic fertilizers and pesticides, treat her livestock when they were sick, and till the soil of her pond to eliminate toxic gas build up. She started farming shrimp as well. Her husband took care of farming the fish and shrimp, but she guided him and made all the decisions regarding the ponds. He never used to take her advice before, but it was clear she knew more because she was making money. From the vegetables, fish, and shrimp she would sell, she was able to save Tk600 per month. She was unable to save at all before PROTIC. She was also able to take out loans to build a new house, fund her children’s education, and help her daughter get a teaching job in a school. She was economically empowered.

Munni was able to do more for others when she had financial strength. She would go to meetings on a daily basis to teach others what she learned through PROTIC, arbitrate for crimes in the community, and bring forward community problems to government meetings. Because she genuinely went out of her way to help others, her community wanted her to run for an elected position, which Munni was considering. While she went out to attend her many engagements, her husband would stay at home to do household chores, and happily so. Whatever Munni was doing to support the family was working for him. Their roles had reversed.

From Munni, we learned that gender roles can flip entirely in the home if you educate and empower a woman. Munni became head of her household, making wise financial decisions for the family. We also learned that having a female mentor, her husband’s aunt in this case, is important in the empowerment process. She believed in Munni’s abilities and encouraged her to speak up for her community. Her aunt’s support, in combination with her various trainings and smart phone technology, enabled Munni to do more for her family and community, especially women.

Tania Ahmed and Mity Mahmuda are research officers at ICCCAD.

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