Sharing Her Story: A Woman's Tale Spurs Social Change

Two women sit side by side outside a modest, hut-like house. Gaunt in her green and blue sari, the woman on the left speaks rapidly, her voice broken at times by distress. Her companion listens, microphone in hand, nodding occasionally in empathy.

At certain moments during the course of her story, the thin woman reaches out and lays a slender hand on her interlocutor's arm. When at last she has finished her tale - one of struggle and survival - she says, "I have disburdened my sorrow, as I could speak out."

Shahnaz Begum, a village woman in Bangladesh, attended a participatory video workshop at Proshika , a large social development organization. For her first video, she decided to make a tape about her neighbor Aleya. After enduring a series of intense hardships, Aleya had succeeded in supporting herself and in providing her daughter an education. Shahnaz, who felt that her own options had been greatly limited by her lack of schooling, wanted her tape to expose the many challenges that confront women in her community.

Camera in hand, Shahnaz came to Aleya's home. After introducing herself, Aleya began to tell her story in a forthright yet emotion-filled voice. She described how her parents were unable to complete dowry payments to her husband, who expressed his anger through violence. He assaulted her physically, and at one point confined her for three days without food. To escape the escalating abuse, Aleya fled, taking her baby daughter with her. Fearful and without resources, she returned to her parents' house as a virtual outcast. Although they took her in for a while, they could not afford the social and financial costs of supporting her.

On her own, Aleya explains, she survived by doing menial household labor and selling betel-leaf. With the help of a Proshika women's group, however, she was able to obtain a cow and chickens. With the income generated by her livestock, Aleya attained economic stability, earning enough to send her daughter to school. She also helped other women form their own groups for collective saving and borrowing.

During the course of the interview, Aleya's hands continue to sort and gather betel-leaf from the mound before her. "I had a hard life," Aleya says, "but why should my daughter?"

Shahnaz's videotape, "The Life Struggle of Aleya," has resonated deeply with audiences who see their daily realities reflected in Aleya's tale. Through myriad screenings, the video has reached thousands; a single community playback drew over 200 people, from small children to village elders. The tape has sparked widespread discussion on women's status and conditions linked to dowry practices. In numerous post-screening discussions, men and women have taken a group vow neither to pay nor take dowry - a pledge that is then enforced by peer pressure.

As for Aleya herself, years after the filming of her life story, she took another step to help insure her daughter's happiness and saw her married, minus dowry.