SUS in November 1990

Photo: Private

Visitor gets both impressed and shocked

In November1990 Julie Lydall and Carleen Irish from England visited SUS and wrote a colorful report that was published in News from Sabalamby Unnayan Samity in January 1991.

”Well, we have been her for ten days now, so it is about time I wrote to you. We are staying in the guest room in the project building, which is very nice – fully equipped with mosquito net, furniture and bathroom. Of course we are well looked after. It is true that the Bangladeshi people are the most hospitable in the world! Roton checks there is nothing we need, Asna cooks, and if we try to fetch our own water Jubeda comes running up to take over!

We have spent several days in the workshops with the women. We don’t have many skills where sewing and bamboo are concerned, and since one of us spent the last year working in a sock factory we kept well away from the socks! So we spent a lot of time in the batik section, seeing how it all works and doing some ourselves. The scarves, saris, punjabi suits and materails are really beautiful. The working atmospere was really relaxed and despite the language barriers we had a good laugh with the women.

Sadly one of the women in the batik section, Shafily, became very ill a few days ago. We went to the hospital to see her and were really shocked. I think because we had been seeing people living in very poor conditions here, but really making the best of the little they have, we expected something similar. It was the pits – Shafily was lying on the floor, there was no doctor there, no health care and it was filthy.

Rokeya explained how corrupt the system is – the rich can buy care and clean, private conditions, everyone else grabs any space they can, and waits. Shafily is still there, so we wait…

Most of the women working in the project building are poor, and need the salary form SUS to survive. A few women are not married, but of course most are, and some of them have found themselves in bad situations – abandoned, divorced, husbands marrying again, etc. So their income from SUS, though small, is vital. Many women are astonished that we, aged 27 and 24, are not married, and ”allowed” to travel alone. Muslim society is harsh for many women and as Westerners we have found it hard exercising restraint towards some men! For example some have suddenly a great interest in SUS, since we are here, and have kept visiting!

Rokeya has always got to be very diplomatic and cannot afford to make enemies who might threaten the project. We have learnt new patience! However, there are two men working at SUS in jobs where Rokeya could not employ women, an they work really hard.

It is inspiring how much the project is spreading since I first heard about it. We have seen the small room in Rokeyas house where it once was, and now it is based in this huge building with four sections, guest room, training room, office, and this is only the start.

We have visited five villages where women from the project are running local groups. These groups have adult education for the women, income generating ideas and savings plans. The idea is that when the group has saved a substantial sum, SUS will help the group to make its own project – school, income generating projects etc.

Most of the groups seemed to be working well, but we saw some arguments too! Some of these were caused bu the other NGO working in the area, which we also visited. This NGO operates relief programmes, so of course the SUS groups cannot understand why they were not given free food etc. It requires a lot fo energy to convince them of the policy of self-reliance. Incientallly we did not think much of this other project, which is very rich from foreign backing. Not only do they have many relief programmes but also a training centre. We saw mostly young boys aged 10+ working very long hours for very little money. Outside groups of young men with no employment were looking in. It seemed like an extreme form of the British Youth Training Scheme – a way of exploiting young people by getting cheaper labour from them.

Eventually Rokeya hopes that these village groups will become completely independent, then other women can take up the jobs at the SUS-building, train, start a village group, become independent.

Rokeya’s mind is always buzzing with new ideas, trying to make SUS as self-reliant as possible. While we were here there was a committee meeting which agreed on Rokeya’s ideas of a new structure in SUS. The new structure creates posts of responsability – a project manager (to be advertised) then few people in charge of 1) the handicrats sections in the building, 2) education, 3) health project, 4) village groups. There will also be people in charge of each of the workshop sections. So the project advances, and also becomes less dependent on Rokeya.

At this very moment Mr Hossain is traininig two project workers in bee-keeping! Yes, the project will be producing honey in the future. And last week we planted four coconut trees. And Rokeya is thinking of vegetable gardens, and a boundary, charging visiting officials for using the guest room and and and ….

Something else which the committee approved is a small building built with bamboo and corrugated tin sheets. Then Rokeya will move the health clinic from its Netrakona office to here.

The SUS health clinic is run on ”SUS” policy, but financed by FPTSTC (Family Planning Service and Training Centre), which i s financed by US Aid. We visited the clinic, which has an organised system of following up accepters of family planning, and keeps records.

No doubt as a result of being US backed they are using these injections which are no longer used in the West. The clinic only uses them if the women (or their husbands) specifically request them.

We were told that the Government is pushing sterilisation very hard, especially amongst the villagers. The policy seemed very dubious – ”We will incapacitate those women who are too stupid to help themselves” rather than educate. SUS keeps records and statistics so if this kind of attitude occured it should show up.

Certainly SUS education policy ”Human Development Training” encourages the people to realize how they are exploited, and that though they are poor and uneducated, they have a right to a place in this world. Sometimes it seems that SUS is up against so much, and it is reallly a struggle to break through everything and promote good development.

Anyway, this is a taste of what we are seeing and thinking. And of course there are the usual and unusual aspect of being abroad, beautiful sunsets, good food, lazy pace of life. I have finally adjusted to using water, and not toilet paper, in the toilet! And we have Rokeya’s company shich is the best part!

Best wishes

Julie Lydall & Carleen Irish

PS. We think Westerners buing SUS’ products should pay Western prices for them! Rokeya assures us any extra income gained in this way will go straight into the women’s salaries.”



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.


”It is inspiring how much the project is spreading since I first heard about it.”

”Rokeya’s mind is always buzzing with new ideas, trying to make SUS as self-reliant as possible.”