Like any child might, Josna Akhtar moved house with her mother and father when she was ten years old. The family’s new home was in Dhaka which was only 120 miles away from where they used to live in the district of Mymensingh, but the short relocation resulted in Josna’s life changing dramatically.
Instead of going to school each day, Josna now stayed at home. “My education stopped due to my mother needing help with household chores as she was a domestic worker.” “Children who are doing household tasks as a profession within an individual household are called domestic workers,” she clarified. “There are two types of workers: full time and part time, and sometimes they are paid and sometimes they are not.”
Josna’s mother then found her a job as a paid domestic worker in another house, the employer of which helped Josna to enrol at the Social Centre at Ain O Salish or ASK, an organisation based in Dhaka whose main focus is human and children’s rights.
He also allowed her to be educated at a formal school, where she later passed her exams, after ASK staff encouraged her employer to send her to one. Life couldn’t have been going any better for the 15 year old.
One day though, without any discussion, Josna’s parents announced that they had arranged a marriage for her. “That day was worst day in my life. I felt helpless,” she said.
Her mother and father didn’t know anything about the man they had arranged for their daughter to marry (“they’d only heard that he was a good person”) and Josna never met him before they wed. “Generally it is not the culture of our village [to meet beforehand]. When he talked with my parents I just saw him from outside.”
Josna attempted to convince her family to call off the marriage however failed to succeed. “[They] tried to understand me but they were unable to do that. In the village, if a girl crosses 18 years of age, she is viewed with a negative impression and as a challenge for getting married, especially if coming from poor family,” she explained.
In the end Josna had to give in and marry the man chosen for her, at which point she had to stop going to school because her husband “did not appreciate girl’s education.” And after about six months, the relationship went from bad to worse. “I found out from my husband’s family members that he had been married before [and] day by day I raised this information with him.”
From this moment on, Josna became a victim of domestic violence. “I argued with him many times regarding this and every time it turned into violence”. She also revealed that even though the attacks were “very bad…physically and psychologically”, she only ever shouted back, nothing else.
After just one year with her husband, Josna decided she couldn’t endure anymore. “He went out one day and during that time I escaped. He did not know anything about me leaving,” she described. “I left for survival”.
When she told her parents they instantly reacted by saying that she had “made a mistake leaving”, in spite of the fact that they were aware of what had been going on. Josna did not return though and has not been in contact with her husband since that day.
Instead she turned to her employer who she had once worked for and he helped her get readmitted in the Socialization Centre where she received counselling to help her overcome what she had been through. At that point she decided that she didn’t want to return to domestic work and with the permission of her employer and support of ASK, she was able to stay on. She attained new skills, including sewing, as a result, as well as vocational training in how to run a small business (which was supported by IKEA).
Despite being forced into domestic work and then a violent arranged marriage, Josna Akhtar has managed to get back on her feet, not without thanks to organisations such as ASK and Save the Children (they work closely together), and IKEA.
Josna is now just 19 years old and still lives in Bangladesh where she is developing individual businesses and has her own marketing policy. She also dreams of establishing her own shop. “The whole experience has made me stronger and I have self-confidence,” she said. “I want to raise my voice against domestic violence and I always think and pray that no one could fall into measurable suffering like me.” She added: “I believe I will be successful.”
Josna was supported by a Save the Children project in Bangladesh, which is funded by IKEA Foundation through the annual IKEA Soft Toy Campaign. In 2011 this campaign raised €12.4 million for Save the Children and UNICEF education programmes around the world. Find out more at: www.IKEAFoundation.org
Femalefirst Sophie Burluraux