Mukta Begum: Empowering the forgotten widows of Bangladesh

In developing countries like Bangladesh, widows often struggle to survive within the confines of a patriarchal society. If she is from poor family, life becomes almost impossible, as custom usually dictates that they are ostracised from their husband’s family. Widow Mukta Begum was no exception to this. But she had an indomitable will; she dreamt to change her own life, and the lives of other widows. This is her story…

Mukta was born into a poor family in Tushvandar Union in the Lalmonirhat district. Her father married her off at the age of 13 when she was an eighth grader. After marriage, Mukta started living in her in-law’s house and she soon became a mother to two daughters. Her husband’s income from crop production was managing their family’s needs.

In 2005, her husband died of a stroke. Mukta’s children were in primary school, and without her husband’s income, she was unable to provide enough food for the family. She described this period as only being able to see darkness around her. Her father provided her some support, but soon she was displaced from her husband’s family’s house. Under the protection from her mother in-law, she found some shelter. Knowing she had to act, she found a training programme in tailoring and borrowed a significant amount of money to invest in a sewing machine. When her mother in-law passed away, Mukta was targeted and suffered harassment from her husband’s family. Under great pressure to provide for her children, Mukta has no other way out than to marry her eldest daughter at an early age. She was heartbroken.

In 2015, Islamic Relief Bangladesh started its Alternative Orphan Family Sponsorship Programme through Sustainable Livelihood project in Aditmari. Mukta and younger daughter were selected as beneficiaries. As a part of the project, female guardians of orphaned children formed a self-help group called Vinnagari Nari Swabalamban Dol (self-dependent women’s society). Mukta was soon elected as the General Secretary and flourished in the entrepreneurship training programme.

Her leadership capacity blossomed as she endeavoured to ensure the collective empowerment of the whole group. She inspired the group to prioritise their children’s education and supported them to purchase income generating assets. Her honesty and integrity gained their trust, and she soon became known for her kindness across the village.

In 2016, Mukta was elected as the General Secretary of Bhadai Union Swabalamban Nari Women’s Forum, a platform of all Nari Swabalamban Dals under Bhadai Union.

This position provided a much bigger scope to work for the widow community.

She fostered new partnerships with neighbouring unions such as Upazila Parishad and the government offices for social welfare and women’s affairs. Capitalising on these networks, she used her position to lobby for better facilities for widows. Her initiative to act secured new support services for 122 widow beneficiaries in the Bhadai Union. This included the provision of widow allowance, Vulnerable Group Development cards, and warm clothes for the harsh winters.

Mukta’s perseverance as a community leader lead to her election as President of Upazila Swabolombon Women’s Forum in 2017. She spearheaded the registration of the forum as a cooperative society, fostering partnership with 44 Swabalamban Dals under the five unions of Aditmari. This cooperative society has approximately BDT 22 Million as its fund to support economic development programmes for 650 widow-headed households. This has had significant impact to curtail their decline into poverty. Many of the children of the beneficiaries now access school and are respected as valuable members of their communities.

For her role in widows’ family empowerment,  Mukta was selected for the Joyeeta award administered by the Aditmari Upazila Administration in association with Directorate of Women’s Affairs. The award honours the fearless women working to uplift their communities through female empowerment. Mukta Begum is a pioneer in establishing the rights of widows in Bangladesh.