Asia University for Women: For a better world

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. A model of the eco-friendly AUW campus Dreamscape: A model of the eco-friendly AUW campus now under construction in Chittagong, Bangladesh. JEFF KINGSTON PHOTO 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. 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. 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. source: Japan times (search.japantimes.co.jp)

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