Meet the ‘aunt with a gun’ – also a mother of four – fighting the barrage of sexual abuse and intimidating attacks on unprotected girls near her home in India.
Determined Shahana Begum, 42, from Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh, northern India, is famous among teenagers and women in her area as the ‘Bandookwali Chachi’ which translates as ‘aunt with a gun’.
After she was widowed 17 years ago she feared for her safety amongst a male dominated area but decided to take extreme measures to protect the safety of herself, her daughters and other vulnerable girls.
‘My gun is now my second husband,’ she said. ‘It is my support and I need it at all times. No man dares trouble a woman in my district now a day. They know I will shoot them. I protect the women of my society like a mother and it is the responsibility of every mother to safeguard her children.’
Shahana has claimed she has managed to reduce the number of sex attacks and harassments in her area, something the police have never been able to officially achieve.
She added: ‘I’ve not heard of any of these cases being reported to the police in many years.’
‘At times girls even come to me when the police have failed to help them because they know I get results.’
Shahana remembers when a girl from a nearby village was picked up by three men in 2013, and raped for two days. The family of the victim claimed they approached the police but were turned away.
‘They came to me asking for help,’ Shahana said. ‘Firstly I went to the police station and told them to accept the case or I’ll report them to a higher authority. The accused were from an influential family so the police were hesitant but eventually the boys were picked up. At the station I demanded to see the main boy and in his face I ordered him to take responsibility for his actions. Eventually he married the girl and today the two live happily.’
Shahana, who has four children – two daughters aged 19 and 22, and two sons aged 17 and 25, has become even more protective of young girls knowing how vulnerable her own daughters might be.
‘I was very young when my husband died. He was shot by his brother many years earlier over a family dispute and then one day he got a sudden stomach ache and died. We have no idea if the wound was to blame or not.’
‘At the time my youngest son was only three-days-old and my youngest daughter was two-years-old. I was on my own with these little children.’
‘People in this village were not supportive. I used to feel unsafe going out of the house to buy clothes, food or basic needs.’
‘I was scared of being attacked or killed and then who would look after my children? I thought about asking the police for help but I’d seen how women had struggled to get any complaint dealt with. I’d known girls to commit suicide after failing to get any support from the police. So I decided to rely on myself. I had to protect myself and to do that I needed a gun.’
Shahana was already pretty comfortable around guns – as her father and husband had used them – so she applied for an arms license. As soon as the license was processed she bought her first gun in 1999 from a gun shop, in Shahjahanpur, for Rs 15,000 (£150) with her savings.
She taught herself to shoot and aim in the empty fields behind her house and now she has an expert aim.
‘I knew what I was doing was good and people would learn to understand my decision eventually.’
And with time, people began to lean on Shahana for help whenever there was an issue in her district.
Her direct approach and no-messing attitude meant she was a force to be reckoned with, and she had no reservations about tackling big built men, officials or superior members of her community if it meant she was protecting vulnerable women like her.
She said: ‘The circle of protection kept growing with time. I went from confronting police officers at the station to fathers and their sons who had done terrible things.’
‘I’ve not had to actually shoot anyone yet. But I’m not afraid of using my gun if I have to. I know that if I have to shoot someone it’s because they’ve done something dreadful to a woman.’
‘Police should actually be thanking me for stepping in and helping them do their job.’
As well as the village protector, Shahana has to also earn money to feed her family. She works as a labourer in the farming fields and sells fish from a local lake. She also works with community officials. She travels around different villages every week to speak to residents and help them with any disputes such as property disputes, daily issues with water, harassment, safety and dowry cases. She often intervenes in cases with the local Kangaroo court, which is famous in India as a small town political system consisting of respected elders chosen and accepted by the local community to settle disputes between individuals and villages.
But local people only know her as the ‘aunt with a gun’.
Villager Sehra Banu, 20, said: ‘No boy dares do or say anything to us. I hear about girls being molested and raped in other parts of the state but not here, and it’s all because they fear ‘Bandookwali chachi’. She is our support. We can go to college, study and work and we’re safe. I will never leave this village because nowhere else has anyone like her.’
The state of Uttar Pradesh is one of the most densely populated states in India which a huge number of rape crimes reported.
The Uttar Pradesh Crime Records Bureau have released figures that show the number of rape cases recorded from 2014 to 2015 had increased by 160 percent. In 2014 a total of 3,467 cases of rape were reported, and in 2015 it had increased to 9,075.
And so far, in 2016 there had been 11,012 cases of rape, 4,520 cases of harassment.
She said: ‘I feel sad that crime against women in my country is increasing. I meet women in my district to learn about their fears so we can fix these issues. I wish this could be done everywhere in India. Women should be given equal respect as men instead of being considered as a commodity. I will fight for the protection of women until my last breath.’