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Shahana Akhter spends her days on her little red scooter looking for small businesses. She works in BRAC’s microfinance programme, and has spent seven years distributing loans and collecting repayments to enable all types of entrepreneurship to expand.
Shahana is stationed in Kotwali of Chattogram district where she lives with her daughter. She and her team identify small entrepreneurs who are not able to go through the extensive documentation process required by mainstream banks to get loans.
There are times when clients refuse to pay on time or, worse, disappear. “You are a woman, why come to the shop for money?” is a common reaction she gets when she pursues in person. She thinks that is perhaps out of the embarrassment of facing a female debt collector.
Shahana does not back down. “It is never easy. It was not meant to be either. Unless I face these challenges, nothing will change for women. We need to be able to take on the tough jobs.” She says that there are more people who are savvy with their finances than people who are not, and more people that respect her than don’t, and that is the knowledge that drives her to work every day.
Hailing from the remote and conservative Charlakkha village in rural Chittagong, Shahana was married off before she took her school board exams. The teenager did not stop there- she studied, worked and saved, although the in-laws would rather have her home and raise children. At one point she moved out of her in-laws with her husband and a small daughter. “It was difficult initially, with both of us working.”
Her biggest challenge, she says, has been in changing people’s perception of working women. “It has been a constant struggle to make them realise it is not something terrible.”
Today she supports her family, and her pride lies in that – her financial independence. “If it weren’t for my job, I would have never had the opportunity to live the life I wanted. I hope my story inspires more women to stand up and take control.”
“When I go on collection drives, people greet me as the scooty apa!” says Shahana. The same woman who was brutally abused by her in-laws now inspires a definite respect and wariness among defaulters. “Better pay up or scooty apa will come after you,” they tell each other, smiling at the woman on her little red bike.