Rashida Begum's difficult early life motivated her to help the virtually powerless women of India improve their economic and social status.
Begum wants to help Indian women overcome the cultural restrictions which suppress them. She has organized widowed, divorced, unmarried, and handicapped women into self-help education and economic independence groups through which these women are over-coming formidable barriers.
Traditional laws and mores that regulate Muslim communities in India create an environment in which women are extremely dependent upon men for economic support. In the Muslim communities men are entitled to divorce women at will; threatening divorce is a tactic often used by men to force their wives' families to increase dowry. Divorce causes many women to become destitute. Employment and educational opportunities for Muslim women, which are often already severely limited by the impoverished conditions in which many live, are further restricted by community traditions. Thus, Muslim women, who as a result of divorce or death of their spouse must provide for themselves and their children alone, confront a wall of limited opportunity created by poverty and community norms.
Begum has established a women and child-development service center in the impoverished district of Howrah near Calcutta. The center combines informal education about women's rights and basic nutrition/sanitation for mothers and their children with a tailoring and knitting training and production program. The products that the women make are sold weekly at a local market. Begum's center has informed many women of their legal rights and has helped battered wives to find legal assistance. Her informal education program has taught women about their own and their children nutritional requirements; vitamins, iron tablets, etc. have been distributed without cost to community women and home check-ups of children have been conducted. Her self-help approach serves as a model for women in other places suffering from similar difficult circumstances.
Rashida Begum is herself a victim of the traditional laws which make it extremely difficult for women to establish their economic independence. She was raised in poverty and married an older man at seventeen. Within a year her husband divorced her because her dowry was not large enough for him. Five-months pregnant, Begum found herself with no source of income. Because of her secondary education she was able to find work to support her child and several younger siblings as a nursery school teacher ($16 per month) and as a tailor ($14 per month). Her experiences inspired her to seek ways of helping Muslim women facing hardships similar to those she endured.