SCI helped SUS get started

Photo: Maj-Lis Koivisto

Encouragement, knowledge and sewing machines

Service Civil International (SCI) played an important role in the history of SUS. With help from the volunteers of SCI Begum Rokeya built a strong network that still exists and at that time gave her the push she needed to get started.  

SCI is a voluntary organization and peace movement. It believes that all people are capable of living together with mutual respect and that they can solve any conflict without violence. SCI’s motto is ”deeds not words.”  SCI works through organizing work camps with participants from many different countries. The Swiss pacifist Pierre Ceresole founded SCI after the First World War in 1920.

As a woman I was not allowed to participate in any kind of work in public outside our home. Therefore, I was not really allowed to participate in SCI’s winter work-camp in Bangladesh. Crazily enough, I did manage to slip in and do some work in the day-time together with the work campers. This created an opportunity for me to meet different people from different parts of the world.

This is how in 1981 I met a wonderful person, Olof Meurling, a Swedish volunteer. Olof had championed the feminist viewpoint his whole life. He was very interested in knowing more about women’s conditions. I realized he was very perceptive about feminism. Olof had worked a good part of his life for the rights and development of poor people.  Meeting Olof  I felt strongly inspired to take this new journey. After getting to know each other better we become close friends. He gradually understood the dream I had been nurturing in my heart for a long time. Since that time, Olof has become a staunch supporter of my work. He has given my work his best effort and extended his cordial co-operation throughout his whole life.

On the initiative of  Olof  I received an invitation to participate in three different SCI work camps in Scandinavia during  summer 1986. This opportunity gave me the confidence to keep my newly-grown tree alive. Especially all the new friends from the second and third work camp in Norway and Finland inspired me to go on with my dream.  I tried to materialize my dream with their financial support and by learning more from them.

I want to share with you a funny and interesting experience which can give you a little glimpse of the state of my knowledge of  the development sector. In my second work camp in Norway in August 1986, I was the only participant from the third world. Like an inexperienced, poor rural woman, I was in an Alice in Wonderland-situation.

At one time my fellow campers arranged a special evening about Bangladesh for me. I was supposed to speak about Bangladesh, especially about women. To the best of my ability I tried to describe it in my broken Bengali accent. But I faced a problem when a radio journalist asked me what type of support I needed. I was quiet for a few minutes and replied with my innocent inexperienced  mind: ”Perhaps some sewing machines can help my poor women to change their economic status”. My voice was transmitted by the Norwegian radio to its listeners and I was astonished to receive 18 old paddle sewing-machines during the rest of my stay.

I am sorry to say I was not able to bring the machines back with me and I returned to Bangladesh with a sad mind.  Later on, at the initiative and with  help from my friends from Norway and Finland, a total of  21 sewing machines were shipped to Bangladesh  and reached  us  via  the Red Crescent Society in 1987.

To receive those machines from Chittagong port without having to pay tax I had to struggle fiercely. Luckily I received help from an ex-Deputy Commissioner of Netrakona, Mr M N Nobi. When I applied to get tax-reduction for the machines, he spent his valuable time and helped me cordially. After a time we managed to receive 18 machines out of 21 from Chittagong port; three disappeared.

So, my first journey to Europe through the friendships developed in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Belgium and West Berlin gave me hope. I was able to the sow the seed of my dream  and to go on with my development journey.

These historical snapshots commemorate 30 years of SUS
and the life of founder Rokeya Begum, based on her book
“My way to freedom through the light of experience”
and other background documents. We are publishing
snapshots before and after the 30 years’ ceremony to be held
in Netrakona, Bangladesh  on the 2 January 2017.


”My voice was transmitted by the Norwegian radio to its listeners and I was astonished to receive 18 old paddle sewing-machines during the rest of my stay.”











”I was able to the sow the seed of my dream  and to go on with my development journey.”