Gaining international experience through volunteering


Sonja Steffen spent 12 months volunteering in Sylhet, Bangladesh as a Marketing and Networking Officer with the Ethnic Community Development Organisation, as part of the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program, an Australian Government initiative. Early career assignments like these are open to young people on the 1st of each month – check out the range of opportunities open today!

The sun rises over an Oraon gram (village). An indigenous woman walks 20 minutes to the nearest water source – a dirty pond – to wash herself and collect water in a deg (metal pot) to carry on her head back to the village where she lights a fire. She starts kneading dough to make paratha (Bangladeshi bread) for the family. It’s at about this time that my iPhone alarm goes off and I roll out of bed. I plug in the kettle to make ca (tea) and heat up a pre-made frozen paratha. I glance over the local newspaper, a luxury that the woman can neither afford nor engage in due to lack of literacy skills. Instead, she sends her eldest son off to school, where he receives education in Bangla rather than his mother tongue and is likely to drop out before he completes primary school.

Though our environments are comparatively different, we are surprisingly united in many ways. We both hand wash our clothes and dress in the traditional salwar kameez. Neither of us wash our hair or wear makeup, and both of our lives centre around the women in the house. We both pray for healthy families and want education for our children. We both deserve to feel safe in our home, and our livelihood is dependent on an income.

This is the reason I moved to Sylhet, Bangladesh: to help bridge the gap between indigenous minorities and mainstream society.

The Ethnic Community Development Organization (ECDO), is a small, non-government organisation working for the development of different indigenous communities in the northeastern corner of Bangladesh. Their work plays a significant role in reducing the social exclusion and marginalisation of indigenous minorities by addressing the disparities in terms of access to social provisions such as education, health and legal assistance. They promote the active and meaningful participation of indigenous people in development processes, and make their analyses as participatory as possible to ensure a sense of community empowerment, ownership, and long-term sustainability to their projects.

As a Marketing and Networking Officer for ECDO, my primary focus is on promoting the work of the organisation, strengthening their external communications, and developing networking strategies. I also attend a lot of weddings!

Having spent the last seven months in the field interacting with minority communities and learning about adivasi culture, I realise that whilst our physical environments are incredibly different, we share more in common than I could ever imagine, and more importantly, that we are united in this movement for equality.

Sonja Steffen volunteered as a Marketing and Networking Officer at the Ethnic Community Development Organization in Bangladesh as part of the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program, an Australian Government initiative. She studied at the University of Canberra, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts (BA), majoring in Communication and Politics, before completing her honours in 2010. After backpacking around Europe and America, Sonja worked in administration, before undertaking her 12-month volunteer assignment at the age of 26.

Since completing her AVID assignment in May 2014, Sonja has deepened her knowledge and understanding of the sector by travelling extensively to other developing countries. In January 2016, Sonja will commence her PhD at Monash University where she hopes to generate new knowledge, approaches and perspectives to tackling complex development issues, thereby making a genuine contribution to this sector more broadly.

Find out more about this fantastic opportunity here.

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