Ingrid and Shilpi together with Shilpi's daughter Dina outside their home in Satkhira. Ingrid and Shilpi together with Shilpi's daughter Dina outside their home in Satkhira.

Friendship without borders

Last updated: 08.07.2014 // In the fall of 2008, a Bangladeshi and a Norwegian girl met in Møre & Romsdal, Norway. 6 years later, the girls found themselves in the same country once again, only this time in Bangladesh. This is the story of how Ingrid, an intern at the Norwegian Embassy in Dhaka, reunited with her old friend Shilpi.

ODW engagement as point of departure

Ingrid is currently finishing her term as one of two interns at the Norwegian Embassy in Dhaka. In 2008, she volunteered for a youth campaign in Norway called Operation Day’s Work (ODW). ODW is an annual Norwegian youth campaign comprised of an information campaign by the name "International Week" (IW) and "The ODW Day". International Week kicks off mid-October every year when schools abandon their normal curriculum to focus on global issues like poverty, inequality and development. At the end of the IW, pupils volunteer to carry out “a day’s work”, donating their salaries to the ODW project. Read more about ODW here.

The Stromme Foundation

In 2008, the ODW salaries were donated to the Stromme Foundation and its “Shonglap” project in rural Bangladesh. Established in 1976, the Stromme Foundation is a Norwegian international development organization helping poor people in the global South climb out of poverty through microfinance and education. The organization runs long-term development programs together with local partner organizations in the South. Read more about the Stromme Foundation here.

Satkhira Unnayan Sangstha (SUS) and the Shonglap project

Shonglap girls during one of the Youth Forum meetings.Shonglap girls during one of the Youth Forum meetings.
 Satkhira Unnayan Sangstha (SUS) is one of the local partners of the Stromme Foundation in Bangladesh. Among other projects, SUS runs the Shonglap schools in Satkhira district and follows up the Shonglap students after graduating from the project's program. Shonglap means ‘dialogue’ and is the name of a one-year, informal training program targeting young girls aged 11-18.

 

Shonglap provides girl school drop-outs with basic reading and writing skills. In addition, it teaches reproductive health and women’s rights, and skills of income-generating activities like tailoring and poultry farming. The aim of the project is to make girls feel like a resource to their families, and to increase their capacity to make decisions affecting their lives.

Shonglap to Norway

As part of the ODW project information campaign of 2008, 20 Bangladeshi girls receiving Shonglap training were invited to different districts in Norway. Shilpi, only 15 years old at the time, was among those who visited Norway. She spent two weeks touring schools in the district of Møre & Romsdal where Ingrid was one of eight high school pupils working to promote ODW.

Ingrid and her classmates spent time with Shilpi to make her feel welcome in this vastly different country. Communication was a challenge, but an interpreter was luckily always at hand. The two weeks with Shilpi left a deep impression on all the Norwegians. This young girl had fearlessly walked up on any stage and spoken in front of any audience. Now she was going back to Bangladesh, and everyone knew staying in touch would be difficult.

Fast forward to 2014, Shilpi and Ingrid had neither seen each other nor spoken together since 2008. As her internship at the Embassy in Dhaka approached the end, Ingrid decided to track down her old friend before leaving Bangladesh for good. Due to the invaluable help of Mr. Jacob Sarker and his colleagues at the Stromme Foundation Bangladesh, Ingrid discovered that Shilpi was living in a village in Satkhira district. That was not all: Shilpi had become a married woman and even had a daughter! Ingrid now felt a strong urge to visit Satkhira, and brought a few friends along for the trip. The local partner of the Stromme Foundation in the area, Satkhira Unnayan Sangstha (SUS), provided the travellers with crucial assistance, and contributed to making the trip a success.

Ingrid and her friend Ida visiting Shilpi. Ingrid and her friend Ida visiting Shilpi.
 
Shilpi, Ingrid and friends of the two girls.Shilpi, Ingrid and friends of the two girls.
Reuniting with Shilpi 

The meeting between the two girls was heart-warming. Ingrid noted that Shilpi had not changed at all - she is still the vibrant, strong Shonglap girl who held presentations in Norway. Shilpi proved to be an excellent host, bringing out one delicacy after the other for her guests to try.

 

After six months in Bangladesh, Ingrid knows a limited number of phrases in Bangla, which made it easier for the girls to communicate. The most amazing part was that Shilpi still remembered some Norwegian – the guests were perplexed to hear a Bangladeshi girl utter phrases like: “Hvordan går det?” (how are you?) and “Hva heter du?” (what is your name?).

 

With a sharp brain like that, Shilpi would have done great if she could have pursued her education. However, reality struck, and Shilpi got married at a very young age. More than half of all Bangladeshi girls are married before the age of 18, with a normal consequence being that they drop out of school.

 

This story is not a sad one, though – Shilpi is grateful to have a kind husband, and her daughter is a healthy and happy girl. Shilpi learned tailoring in the Shonglap program, which helps her make 500-1000 taka per month. This makes her a resource for her husband and family, and she holds a respected position in her local community.

Upon departing, Ingrid and Shilpi agreed to remain in touch. This time the chances are higher that they effectively will do so as they are now connected through the above mentioned organisations – and Facebook.

 

The success of Shonglap

After visiting Shilpi, the Norwegian delegation was invited to a Shonglap Youth Forum. The girls in the forum come from three different villages where the Shonglap schools are located. Post graduation, the Shonglap girls continue to meet on a fortnight’s basis to exchange views on any problem they might be facing.

Several girls in the Youth Forum have become mothers since graduating from Shonglap's educational program, just like Shilpi. Does that mean that the Shonglap project is not successful? Not at all – the changes that Shonglap brings about are more subtle than that. It contributes to a slight increase in the average marriage age. It makes girls aware of their reproductive rights. It makes girls realise that they can influence their own lives and communities. That, in turn, creates a generation of mothers with different aspirations for their children. The best example is Shilpi who is determined that her daughter will have an education.


Bookmark and Share