Asia University for Women, launched in 2008, is an audacious project in Chittagong, Bangladesh, that is aiming to develop the region’s future leaders.
It has graduated two classes and, despite teething problems, looks to have a bright future in a country best known for poverty and natural disasters. It currently has 535 students from 12 countries, extraordinary young women who have learned about socioeconomic problems, conflict and violence firsthand.
Seeing AUW at work, as I did in 2009, is to believe in its mission and the empowering role of education. It recruits young women who are almost all the first in their families to pursue higher education. They receive full scholarships to cover tuition, room and board, books, health insurance and travel expenses totaling $15,000 per year.
Due to this support, AUW students feel a great sense of responsibility and approach their studies with determination, valuing an opportunity that will change their lives and hopefully the communities they come from.
The institution, though a work in progress, is moving toward empowering women who can eventually empower others by inculcating leadership skills and public-service-oriented values. It is also a space for promoting tolerance, as young women live and study at close quarters with a diverse student body. The troubled history of the region has bequeathed a legacy of animosities, but AUW creates a space where students can question and subvert such barriers and hatreds.
Jack Meyer, head of a Boston-based hedge fund, is one of the leading individual donors. He admits it has been harder than he imagined raising enough funds to match AUW’s ambitions, and that mistakes have been made, but emphasizes how much has been accomplished under difficult circumstances. The millions of dollars he has invested in AUW are now bearing fruit as graduates are landing good jobs and entering graduate programs around the world, becoming agents of change.
If AUW’s future can be forecast based on its alumni, things look very promising. According to feedback from four graduates, the university has instilled a strong sense of mission to go along with the skills and confidence that are learned.
“It trained us to be culturally tolerant and appreciate difference,” says Afsana Atuly from Bangladesh. “The multicultural atmosphere of AUW developed our sense of being a global citizen and having empathy toward people.”
Direct communication with Pakistani students, for example, helped Atuly overcome the animosity that stems from the brutal civil war of 1971 that led to the establishment of an independent Bangladesh.
“Being a woman in this subcontinent is not very easy,” Atuly adds. “Studying at AUW has made me proud of my womanhood and helps me appreciate myself.”
Atuly now works with Teach for Bangladesh, an educational initiative focusing on the underprivileged, and recently won a fellowship for a masters program at BRAC University in Dhaka.
Duth Kimsru, a Cambodian born in a rural village of 50 families, had an arduous road to Chittagong and back, but never gave up. She is now working as a coordinator with Promoting Education, emPowering Youth, a nonprofit organization in Phnom Penh where she helps 12th-grade students develop the necessary skills to help them realize their dreams, and also raises scholarship funds in order to make higher education a possibility for other underprivileged students. Studying at AUW meant learning not to waste time, developing critical thinking skills and becoming “a global citizen, not just a rural Cambodian girl,” she says. “I am empowered to be a leader and help my society.”
Bangladesh-born Mowmita Basak found AUW was a life-changer.
“Minority women, like me, who do not dress so conservatively are regularly harassed by the self-proclaimed ‘modesty watchdog’ groups patrolling the streets,” she says of her homeland. “The society around me had the constant expectation that I would conform to the traditional family role of a mother and wife rather than taking up employment and building my own career, let alone taking up a leadership position outside of the household.”
Basak wryly notes that AUW has changed her life trajectory because it made her “modern and un-manageable, and hence un-marriageable!” Adding that “for a woman in our society, that means not having any purpose of life whatsoever.”
Apparently, that’s no longer the case. Mowmita is president of the Center for Leadership Assitance and Promotion foundation, a nonprofit social-welfare organization based in Chittagong. This fall, she will be starting a masters degree in international development management at the University of Bradford in England on a Global Development scholarship. Recently, she also received the 2014 Global Laureate fellowship for being one of the 20 most influential young entrepreneurs/CEOs around the world. Not bad!
Zyma Islam, also from Bangladesh, tells a story of growing up in a shantytown.
“It meant not even being able to have a popsicle while walking down the street, because a horde of hungry malnourished homeless children would crowd up to you for a bite,” she says.
At AUW, Islam explains, diversity didn’t just come via rhetoric or “the color of our passport — we shared life skills.”
After graduating she landed a job as a crime reporter at the largest national English daily newspaper in Bangladesh — The Daily Star.
“Every day is a struggle for justice for me, on behalf of the people I choose to represent — the poor, the downtrodden,” she says.
Recently Islam moved to New York and has begun graduate studies at Columbia University’s School of Journalism.
Kathy Matsui, Goldman Sachs’ chief investment strategist in Japan, who is best known for inventing “womenomics,” is a leading benefactor of the university. She recently told me that societies benefit by facilitating women’s enhanced participation and enabling them to pursue fulfilling careers. Helping them to do so in developing nations is especially challenging, because educational opportunities are limited.
“I am a big believer in empowering women, and AUW is key to unlocking the hidden assets of women in these societies,” Matsui says. “Investing in educating women has a great long-term return in terms of the ripple effects on the women, their families, communities and employers. It’s about helping women get opportunities.”
Over the years, AUW has raised around $50 million to sponsor its mission, enjoying generous support from individuals and the Gates Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Institute, Ikea, the Fung Foundation and many others. In Japan, the prime minister’s wife, Akie Abe, is a patron while Toshiba, Fast Retailing (Uniqlo) and Mitsui sponsor students, with Dentsu and Pasona providing summer internships. Supporting AUW makes sense because, as Matsui reminds us, educating women is the best investment one can make to alleviate poverty in developing societies.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.
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