In 2021, Assam laid claim to probably one, if not the most, unwanted records: in September 2021, for the fourth year in a row, Assam recorded the highest crime rate against women. According to IndiaSpend, the crime rate of rape per 100,000 female population increased 33 per cent in Assam between 2005 and 2019. If this seems high, then consider this: the rape is ‘much lower’ to the rise in violence (409 per cent), molestation (309 per cent), and kidnapping (267 per cent), NCRB data showed.

For the longest time, Runjun Begum, a resident of Rangia in lower Assam, remained another person in the statistics on violence. On more than one occasion, she contemplated suicide. Finally, one day, unable to bear physical and mental torture from her husband and in-laws, she fled her home intending to end her life. But fate had other plans, and a decade later, she has become a shining example of women from marginalised communities who have gone on to establish themselves as entrepreneurs. 

All that Begum remembers from that fateful night is being in a daze: somehow, she ended up boarding a bus from her native town, and before she could figure out much, she had reached Jalukbari in Guwahati. 

EARLY MARRIAGE FOLLOWED BY DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

Born in a marginalised family, Begum’s story is a familiar one: she was married off at the age of 16 just after completing matriculation to Atowar Hussain of Rangia. Speaking with EastMojo, Begum says, “The first few years of my conjugal life went pretty normal. One year after marriage (2007), I gave birth to our elder daughter Riya Nargis, and after two years, I gave birth to our second daughter Noori Nargis. Things were well till the birth of our second daughter. The torture started when my husband and in-laws came to know I gave birth to a girl for the second time. The physical and mental torture continued for over three years,” she says.

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“Meanwhile, I got pregnant again. The pregnancy news made my husband and in-laws furious as they thought it would be a girl for the third time. They tried to convince me to abort the child in every possible way, which I firmly resisted,” she adds.

Currently, Lucky Tailor has two branches: one at New Basti Jalukbari and the other at Masjid Galli, Jalukbari

Begum’s life took a new turn on February 11, 2013. That day, she finally decided to stand up for herself and run away from her in-laws’ place, leaving everything, including her two little daughters.

“Running away was the only option for me as I knew that if I didn’t (run away), they will kill me. The decision was quite tough…I had a 5-month-old baby in my womb, but it was better to die by suicide than getting killed,” she says, adding, “In a quite unconscious state with just Rs 30 in hand, having no knowledge about the road, I boarded a bus and finally reached Jalukbari (Guwahati). On my way, I met a couple who helped me to file a complaint in the Human Rights Commission.” 

At the commission, Begum met two advocates: Pabitra Hazarika and Alen Mahanta. They guided and supported her through the legal process. “Pabitra Hazarika and Alen Mahanta took me to Nirmal Ashray, a shelter home where I got my second life,” she shares.

After staying at various places for a few months, Begum went to Nirmal Ashray, a shelter home in Patharquary, Guwahati. She was 9 months pregnant by then. “The officials of the shelter home are the angels of my life. Their constant encouragement made me what I am today. A week before giving birth to my son, Nizamul Hussain alias Lucky, they not only arranged everything for my delivery but also took good care of me, and my newly-born baby.”

She stayed at Nirmal Ashray for five months after giving birth to her son and learnt tailoring and other handicraft works. Witnessing the fire in her belly, Jyoti Rajkhowa, a senior member of the shelter home, donated a sewing machine to Begum with which she started sewing clothes.

BECOMING AN ENTREPRENEUR

A year later, Begum moved out from Nirmal Ashray to open her tailor shop. For the first few months, she worked as a helper at another tailoring shop. But soon, with tremendous hard work, she opened her tailor shop: ‘Lucky Tailor’ in Jalukbari. 

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“I still can’t believe what happened,” Begum recalls. “Within a year, from being a victim of assault I became a businesswoman. Slowly, I started getting bulk orders, and my creations started getting exported to various parts of Assam and even outside,” she states. 

Runjun Begum and her son Lucky with the officials of State Social Welfare Department

Currently, Lucky Tailor has two branches: one at New Basti Jalukbari and the other at Masjid Galli, Jalukbari. “During winters, we stitch blankets, covers, curtains, mosquito nets, and in summers, we work on kurta, palazzos, and other summer wears,” Begum explains. 

“By the grace of God and people’s support, in most months I earn between Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh. The journey from two digits to five digits has been quite overwhelming,” she says with a big smile.  

Begum hopes to open her loom one day, “There is not a single taat saal (loom) in our locality. I want to set up one and give new dimensions to my creations. In this way, I can contribute towards enriching Assam’s handloom and textiles,” she says. 

MINISTER ACKNOWLEDGES BEGUM

Begum was recently felicitated by State Social Welfare Minister Ajanta Neog during a consultation on ending violence against women and girls. 

Minister Smt. Ajanta Neog with Runjun Begum and her son Lucky on the sidelines of the state-level multi stakeholders consultation on ending violence against women and girls held in Guwahati recently

Mentioning her achievement, Neog wrote on her Facebook profile, “With strong willpower and self-confidence, a person can make the impossible possible. Runjun is a great example of this. I hope Runjun Begum, who paved the way for self-reliance through her hard work, will be a source of inspiration for many such women.”

NO LACK OF SUPPORTERS FOR BEGUM

Sumitra Phukan, superintendent of Nirmal Ashray, says, “She was an all-rounder who used to participate in every activity. A proactive and enthusiastic girl, it was our privilege to have her in this home.”

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Saswati Sharma, the counsellor at Nirmal Ashray, agrees with Phukan. “In the last few years, I have counselled many women. All they need is maintenance from their husband. Surprisingly, Runjun, despite facing a severe financial crisis, never bothered about any maintenance, rather she worked and created her own identity.”

IMPROVING LIVES

Immediately after tasting success, Begum decided to empower other underprivileged women of her locality. She started by providing free of cost training to young girls and women. Presently, around 15 women are working with her on a regular commission basis. Also, many girls and women come and work as per time and convenience.

Hasina Begum, one of Begum’s employees, says, “For the last three years, I have been working with her. She showed me the path, made me confident and self-reliant. Today, I am a strong helping hand of my husband, and all credits go to Runjun.”

Sulema Khatun, another woman who is also a single mother, is all praise for Begum. “She always went out of the way to help me. There was a time when due to the financial crisis, I couldn’t admit my son to college. At that time, she asked me not to stop his education and helped in his admission. She is the best teacher one can ever have.” 

Runjun Begum along with her employees

Witnessing her potential, many clients came forward and extended their support. Shamima Ahmed, one of her oldest clients helping her in expanding her venture, recalls, “I first met Runjun when she came to Jalukbari and started working at a shop. I was her regular client. Eventually, we developed a strong relationship. I mostly take care of the wholesale work here, it has been great working with her, and I have been doing it for the last seven years.”   

Begum eventually got divorced from her ex-husband and now lives happily with her 8-year-old son Lucky. During the court’s judgment in Rangia three years ago, she saw her two daughters, who did not want to talk to her.

“I heard my mother-in-law tell them that their mother is dead. It was a very painful moment for me,” recalls Begum. “There is not a single moment when I don’t miss them. I just wish someday they will realise everything and come back to me,” she shares.

But Runjun has no plans of stopping: she believes she can help many women like her start a new life of dignity and respect they deserve. 

Also read: Assam: How vermicompost helped rural women become self-reliant



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