Perhaps it is only fitting in this time of dismal economic news that Bangladesh, a country known principally for natural disasters and human misery, provides an inspiring and uplifting story to relieve the gathering gloom.

In addition to the monumental task of restoring democracy there by holding free and fair elections at the end of 2008, its Asia University for Women is now up and running, a venture that has gathered widespread international support aimed at nurturing women leaders from around the region. It is a magical place where you can see dreams coming true before your eyes.

The premise is simple: Money spent on educating women in poor countries is the best possible investment in development. That’s because educating women has an enormous positive impact on reducing family size and mortality in families, improving the spacing of children and the allocation of household resources to children’s education and health. It has also been found to lead to increased agricultural productivity, savings and per capita income.

Kathy Matsui, the managing director of Goldman Sachs in Tokyo, coined the concept “womenomics,” and through her generous support of AUW she is investing her money where her convictions are. She believes that women are a secret and underutilized weapon in economic growth and that closing the gender gap in education and labor-force participation can spark a “quiet revolution.” So closing the yawning gap between the haves and have-nots in Asia means improving educational opportunities for marginalized women.

After growing up in California as the daughter of Japanese immigrant farmers, Matsui understands the transformational power of education. While there has been progress in closing the gender gap in primary and secondary education in Asia, Matsui believes that because the rate of return on education for women is higher than for men, it is crucial to promote higher education for women. She is convinced that AUW can help its graduates become “miracle makers, making the impossible possible.”

Matsui emphasizes that, “Narrowing the gender gap in education and employment is the best possible social investment that one can make.”

Asked by AUW students how to break the so-called glass ceiling said to invisibly prevent women rising as high in their fields as men, she joked, “There is no glass ceiling, just a big layer of men!”

She advised young women to use the comparative advantages of their gender, and not to try and emulate men, saying that they can overcome obstacles and discrimination if they find something they are passionate about and pursue it with all their energy.

She says, “Breaking through the glass ceiling involves changing norms and attitudes, and making employers aware that it is to their benefit to value talented women workers and treat them accordingly.”

In her view, by empowering women and giving them the skills they need to chase their dreams, AUW is an incubator for change and development.

Kamal Ahmad is the Harvard-educated “Bangladeshi bulldozer” who came up with the idea of AUW. He has tirelessly and successfully promoted it all over the world and against all the odds — even managing to ram it through the Bangladesh bureaucracy and parliament.

Ahmad says the biggest challenge has been overcoming the “obstructive engagement of the Bangladesh bureaucracy.” However, he is so persuasive that he convinced the government to donate 100 acres (40.5 hectares) of land in the hills outside Chittagong for the campus — no mean feat in one of the most densely populated nations in the world, where some 150 million people occupy an area the size of Denmark.

Ahmad says that the idea of AUW sells itself, which he claims explains why he has had substantial success in getting foundation support and individual contributions. He says, “An AUW education represents a rare opportunity for rural women to earn a sustainable escape from rural poverty.” By targeting first-generation university entrants, Ahmad hopes to spread the fruits of AUW to people who have always been on the outside looking in, and were often bypassed by development initiatives.

Kathy Pike, Assistant Dean of Research and Professor of Psychology at Temple University, Japan Campus, notes that, “Graduates from AUW will have to deal with the tensions between traditional expectations and their modern aspirations — a challenge that will test their critical thinking and communication skills.

“They are agents of change within their families and villages, challenging attitudes and norms that have kept women dependent and subordinate. Empowering these women and giving them confidence that they can make dreams come true and change the reality around them will have a tremendously beneficial impact.

“By changing their sense of possibilities, AUW will be changing Asian women’s futures,” she declares.

The magic of AUW is evident in the lively classrooms. The student-faculty ratio is 12:1, and there are currently 129 students in an 18-month college preparatory program called Access Academy. There were 20 applications for each slot, so it is a highly competitive program that provides full funding for the students, including travel expenses.

Although the goal is to reach across most of Asia, the first intake in April 2008 included students from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, India and Cambodia. The 2009 intake on the program will include students from Afghanistan, Bhutan and Vietnam as well. Eventually, AUW will have 5,000 students, and plans a number of master degree programs with international partners.

Ishara Piumi Warakagoda, 19, is one of the 28 Sri Lankan women at AUW, and she made a big impression on me by almost torching my hair as I ventured close to take a photo while she was performing a welcoming fire dance. She says that the Sinhalese and Tamils on the program leave their differences at home, but the ongoing war does spark anxieties.

Although there were initial concerns that traditional values would make families reluctant to send their daughters abroad, almost all the students I spoke with said that was not an issue.

Warakagoda says her parents, neither of whom attended university, are excited she got a chance they could never afford on their own for her. Their business was burned down during ethnic violence, and they now struggle to raise a family of five. As an accomplished dancer, however, Warakagoda has traveled in many of the areas of her homeland most affected by the civil war in a “peace-through-art” initiative.

Warakagoda says she likes AUW because it engages students and requires critical thinking — unlike the passive rote-learning she was used to. Her goal is to work toward ending the bloodshed that plagues Sri Lanka.

There are also eight Cambodians at AUW, and by all accounts their English skills were the weakest when they entered. Given this, it is amazing to hear them now fluently tell their stories, give PowerPoint presentations and engage in debate.

I promised myself that when I returned to Tokyo I would not scold my students for not working hard enough — but there is a stunning difference between students who take education for granted, and those who see it as an unexpected and precious gift.

Those young Cambodian women are obviously very intelligent, coming from rural villages where their parents were farmers and their teachers were monks or unmotivated civil servants. The Pol Pot era (1975-79) is recalled as a disastrous time when educated people were executed and the country was transformed into a living hell — meaning there is now an urgent need for skilled people in a country that spends little on education.

Meanwhile, during my inspiring visit to AUW, another student I met was a vivacious 19-year-old from rural Bangladesh who had been destined to be a child bride of a middle-aged man at age 14. Luckily, her brother intervened and she was not married off. For this woman, who feels it is better that her name is not published, gaining a place at AUW is like winning the lottery. She also reports that her father is now glad that she is getting an education that will probably change the lives of her entire family.

Like all the other students I met, she is committed to doing something for those who she left behind, an abiding ethos that AUW emphasizes.

Currently, the 14 teachers at Access Academy are from the United States, Canada and Australia, and all volunteered through World Teach, a Harvard-based organization that gives recent college graduates a chance to see some of the world and teach English where they are assigned. Some have previous overseas experience and English as a Second Language training, but the main qualities they bring to AUW are their dedication and enthusiasm.

Amy Lam is an unlikely teacher. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, she got a good media job and was earning much more than her immigrant father.

When she resigned and decided to become a volunteer, her parents were appalled and mystified, feeling they were watching their dreams evaporate as she pursued hers. First she went to Hunan, China and then to AUW, believing that it is important for her to “complete the narrative full circle” by giving these young women the chance of a good education like her ethnic Chinese parents from Vietnam struggled to give her.

Another AUW faculty member is Nancy Ko, a former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Guyana. She teaches intensive English classes and has embarked on a wonderful project to compile the students’ written life stories. Reading these accounts of deprived childhoods and bleak prospects brings it powerfully home just what a huge difference AUW is making.

But Lone Dybkjaer, a prominent Danish politician now in the European Parliament who has been a strong supporter of AUW from the outset, warned when I spoke to her there that one of the most crucial decisions graduates face is in choosing the right husband. She stressed that an understanding and supportive husband willing to share household duties and accept a wife’s accomplishments — and the demands of her career — is essential. That is particularly crucial because AUW graduates may appear to threaten established patriarchal ways in their families and villages, and thus need a partner who can support and share their dreams.

Fresh from that conversation, I asked many students if they worried about their marriage prospects, but not one would admit to having any concerns at all about finding the right husband. Several of the students said they liked the fact that AUW was not coed, saying it helped them to concentrate on their studies rather than boys.

With a view to enhancing those studies in the future, AUW is now expanding the faculty for its undergraduate program. Stanford University in California has just announced that it is supporting two postdoctoral students to come and teach undergraduate courses at AUW, joining a host of other top institutions and foundations — Open Society, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and Goldman Sachs, to mention a few — that are supporting this grand experiment beside the Bay of Bengal. But there is never enough money, and AUW is aggressively fundraising to create a world-class educational institution in this unlikely setting.

Closer to home, the spirit of AUW philanthropy is alive and well in Japan, but relies heavily on the generosity of non-Japanese residents, especially Kathy Matsui and Kathy Pike. There have been some small donations by Japanese individuals, but corporate Japan and foundations here have been parsimonious in the extreme.

In contrast, Matsui says, “AUW brings together my interest in empowering women with my belief that Japan’s relations with Asia are not as good as they ought to be. Supporting AUW is about enlightened self-interest.” Alas, corporate Japan does not yet see it that way.

Pike adds, “It is in Japan’s interests to educate women as agents of change to promote regional development and political stability.”

Such enthusiasm was not always shared by the renowned Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus, who was jointly awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize along with the Grameen Bank he founded.

Describing himself as a “critic in residence” on AUW’s advisory board, Yunus confessed that he initially had many reservations about AUW that have faded as the program developed.

And, of course, persuading him of the merits of AUW has meant it is easier to persuade others, as the microfinancing he pioneered is now a mantra of development agencies. His profitable Grameen Bank promotes development and entrepreneurship by extending small loans to poor rural women without collateral, relying on community pressures to ensure timely repayment and achieve an enviably low default rate.

Yunus encourages AUW to target poor, first-generation university entrants from rural areas to ensure that those most in need of help are benefiting. In his view, the emphasis at AUW on problem-solving and practical experience based on internships and fieldwork will prove invaluable for these future leaders who are building cross-regional personal networks.

Bangladesh, with all of its problems, is an excellent learning laboratory that will serve graduates well when they return to their countries and tackle similar challenges. Yunus’ greatest concern, though, is the potential for a brain drain, with international firms and organizations lining up to hire graduates away from the region. But given their obvious commitment to their countries and the AUW ethos, his concerns may be exaggerated, as one can imagine the alumni drawing on successful careers overseas to promote initiatives and shape policies back home, while helping AUW and its students through their networks and contributions.

AUW is a work in progress, but one that is already delivering on its potential. Chittagong, famous for scrapping and recycling ships, will soon be better known for launching a new generation of 21st-century women who are going to change how Asia operates.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus

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