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Sunday, Jan. 11, 2009

Asia University for Women: magic in the making

Special to The Japan Times

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.

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."

Sri Lankan AUW student Ishara Piumi Warakagoda performs a traditional fire dance as a happy greeting to visitors to the campus
Warm welcome: Sri Lankan AUW student Ishara Piumi Warakagoda performs a traditional fire dance as a happy greeting to visitors to the campus. JEFF KINGSTON PHOTO

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.

 U.S. graduate Amy Lam
Giving back: High-flying U.S. graduate Amy Lam, who gave up a media career to teach at AUW. JEFF KINGSTON PHOTO

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.


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