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Education and Empowerment at the Asian University for Women

This article was originally published by CSR Asia Weekly on September 2, 2015
Lawrence Summers, former World Bank Chief Economist, famously wrote, “Investment in the education of girls may well be the highest-return investment in the developing world.”

An educated woman is more likely to be healthier, participate in formal labour markets, earn a higher income, have fewer children, better manage the health of her family, and crucially, an educated woman is more likely to educate her children. These factors can help individuals, families and communities break the cycle of poverty. Studies by the World Bank and World Economic Forum highlight the important role women play in driving societal and economic progress as they become more productive citizens. According to a study by Goldman Sachs, closing gender gaps in education and employment could boost per capita income in emerging markets by up to 14% by 2020, and as much as 20% or more by 2030. In Asia, despite remarkable improvements in women’s education, and the highest female labour force participation rate (70%) of any region in the world, many women still do not have equitable access to education. Some of the major challenges women face can be rooted in culture, poverty, tradition, religion and an antiquated view of a woman’s place in society.

CSR Asia recently attended the launch of a Support Foundation in Hong Kong that will raise funds for the Asian University for Women (AUW), an independent university in Chittagong, Bangladesh, that seeks to educate a new generation of women leaders by granting full scholarships to low-income, high-potential women from across the region. Established in 2008, AUW has graduated nearly 400 women and has around 500 current students from across Asia and the Middle East, many of whom are the first in their families to attend university. Applicants are screened for three leadership traits courage, empathy and sensitivity to injustice and are selected on the basis of perceived potential rather than past academic performance or financial situation, so as not to disadvantage those who have had access to fewer opportunities in life.

At the launch event, Cherie Blair, Chancellor of AUW, noted how even in developed countries such as the United Kingdom, it had been uncommon for women to attend university in generations before hers, and that she was the first spouse of a British Prime Minister to hold a university degree. She emphasised the importance of building AUW into a world-class institution with facilities and faculty to match, to send a clear message that society is ready to take women’s education seriously. To do this, AUW hopes to double its student body and raise US$100m to fund scholarships, campus expansion and create an endowment that will allow the university to become self-sustaining over time.

We asked Kamal Ahmad, founder and CEO of AUW, how he measured success, and although his response was that it is still ‘early days’, having only graduated three classes so far, the stories he shared captured a glimpse of change. AUW served as an accelerator for several graduates now studying at Stanford, Columbia and Oxford; provided a platform for two Bangladeshi students to initiate what has since become a national movement against gender discrimination; and unlocked the entrepreneurial spirit of one resourceful first year from Afghanistan, who now runs her own trading business out of her dorm room. An Afghani graduate and a Nepalese student, both of whom would have limited access to higher education if not for AUW, were present at the launch of the Support Foundation. Their confidence and poise on stage and thoughtful, mature responses made it easy to picture them succeeding in their aspiration to become leaders in the public service and public health sectors respectively.

It is obvious that AUW provides underserved young women with hope, encouragement and an opportunity to experience a world of possibilities, but is this dream doing more harm than good if societal views of gender do not keep pace? Ahmad explains that AUW has considered this challenge and endeavours to recruit students in groups, so that graduates are not alone upon returning to their communities and can drive change together. He tells one story of several AUW graduates who, upon entering the workplace in their hometown of Kabul, Afghanistan, found it curious that their female colleagues did not eat lunch in the cafeteria alongside the men. They decided that they would do differently. After an initial period of stares and whispers, the other women started to join them. While a seemingly insignificant act, this new generation of educated women is challenging and changing socio-cultural gender biases one cafeteria at a time.

How can the private sector help? Apart from financial support, Ahmad emphasises the importance of mentors and, in particular, women role models for AUW students. As part of the AUW curriculum, students are encouraged to take on internships with companies, entrepreneurs and nonprofits, to gain experience of the working world and help them figure out the sector in which they can best optimise their talents. For more information on the role of the private sector in women’s economic empowerment in Asia, please see CSR Asia’s recent report or join the discussion Women’s economic empowerment in Asia at work and in the community, what next? at the CSR Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur on the 7 and 8 October.
by Samantha Woods swoods@csr-asia.com