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     Volume 8 Issue 52 | January 9, 2009 |

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Grooming Women Leaders

Shayera Moula

Kamal Ahmad, son of a university biochemist and brother to six other siblings, used to organise classes for 400 poverty-struck children in his early teens. Recognised as one of the nation's most promising undergraduates by Time magazine in 1987, and a traveller across borders in hopes to raise funds and recruit faculty, he quit his job as an attorney in Manila in preparation for launching Asian University for Women.

The aim is to attain a set of female leaders, who will not remain captives of history.

A graduate from Exeter and Harvard College and the Founder of Third World Society, Kamal Ahmed is now the President and CEO of AUW, a 100 acre space campus in Chittagong, aimed for a promising 3,000 of the brightest students in South Asia.

Popularly known to unite people for social projects, envisioned ahead of its time, Ahmad tells us the importance of education for women and its beneficial impact on the society at large.

Could you brief us on what went behind making AUW possible?
The immediate precursor for the idea of education would be by World Bank that brought forth what is called the Task Force to examine higher education in developing societies, in around 97-98. This programme, which brought together 14 eminent men and women including Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and the former first lady of Denmark, was co-directed by me.

The backdrop of the history of education let's us know that the 50s and 60s had focused on education as independent centres. The 60s and 70s faced a difficult era due to the Liberation movement and the Vietnam protests from students around the globe. 1968 marks a time in history when universities were ablaze. It was a time that signified an economic literature which suggested that the greatest source of inner return comes from primary education.

So, international development moved away from supporting higher education where governments realised that many of the persistent problems could not be resolved by the men and women coming out of higher education. Therefore why spend money on this sector?
Fast forwarding a bit the 90s recognised that enterprises such as DU stopped functioning at the level they once did. We, at the Task Force, realised that if education was important 50 years ago, it is more important now because of the globalisation effect. Less access to higher education would mean more vulnerability to the international world.

To me, at the heart of sovereignty, a country that doesn't have information capacity cannot be savant. You are always at the mercy of other people's knowledge. The Task Force helped draw attention to such factors and the need to create a centre of excellence.

Why Bangladesh?
Bangladesh fits in with the matrix of both need and potential. The higher education system is in disarray and there has been a significant deterioration here. Allowing the government to get into every sector of higher education has been and is a prescription for academic disaster.

However, with the gradual and effective transformation of women both in the grassroot level as well as the other social sittings and the increase in number of females participating in the formal economy, we knew that we could build something here and help elaborate the process and progress.

What were the challenges?
There have been challenges in wanting a change with the landscape of education, particularly for women but in terms of the logistical issues, we knew that we could succeed only if we remain autonomous. We grafted a charter and it was planned that if the government ratifies it, we will come here. As a token they were to provide us with 100 acres of land.

The charter is significant because it makes the institution free and is governed by an independent board of trustees. We can set our own academic goals and have the liberty to apply a principal of non-discrimination.

Don't you worry about cultural prejudices?
Every society is dynamic and as an independent nation, we are very different to what we were twenty years ago. No society is stagnant and the pace of change is simply the results of the forces to revolutionise, which can break down the mould.

The aim is to attain a set of female leaders, who will not remain captives of history.

Aren't you concerned of reinforcing gender segregated?
The projects are designed to make sure that it's not a monastery of any sort. We want to produce individuals that can lead rather than slow down from whatever they are being inhibited from.

We achieve this through curricular activities which involve interactions and competitions with other institutions, which include both men and women. Every student is also required to do an internship, which again means that they are exposed in a mixed gendered space.

The primary idea is for women to be among themselves, express individuality and strengthen the notion of women empowerment before heading out to carry on the same stamina elsewhere.

AUW-a 100 acre space campus in Chittagong, aimed for a promising 3,000 of the brightest students in South Asia.

Activities such as intense self-defense training programmes, playing a model UN conference and representing a real life socio-political situation are tools of confidence. So, they aren't isolated, in fact they are trained and being better prepared.

Why recruit such a small [25] percentage of female students from Bangladesh?
The power of the project is to recruit a community not bounded by ethnicity, race, or religion. The more we tend to define them by their identities solely, the less capacity they will have on working with the global issue. A girl from Bangladesh must know about the environmental issues both here and around the world.

Tolerance is vital too in the large community. Our history shows the enormous price we paid while attaining a narrow sense of identity. We must acknowledge and appreciate the diversity in order to define ourselves as a part of the large society.

It's vital to draw recognitions of others in order to reengineer a sense of community. Last year we took in people from six different countries and this year we were able to expand that to 12 countries.

What are the university's policies regarding dress code, hostel curfew hours, and students' right to privacy?
We don't have a dress code. We would be considering the same amount of respect of individuality to someone with a hijab as we would inflect to someone wearing jeans or saris. Curfew is at 6.30 but a lot of the activities simply take place within it. There are of course weekends.

Campus labs and library are open 24 hours. Students have their own art exhibition, drama rehearsals. One student was able to video a documentary of the lifestyles of street people. The diverse activities have given these students more liberty.

How do students connect to grassroot problems?
Many of them come from the grassroots and therefore are already part of the daily realities. Once they are capable of having an academic excellence, they can easily bridge back to it. As part of their curricular, they have taken up projects, such as from organising school for the cleaners who work in the campus to taking trips to orphanages, which denote long-term devotion to the social areas.

Dr. Muhammad Yunus's framework of innovation, leadership and entrepreneurship is also a current project we are planning to work with to facilitate entrepreneurial endeavours among students.

We allow them to dream, an ambition that gets halted in their teens. Discussion and workshops allow them to find the routes required accomplishing this dream and towards the end, most of them already have a business planned out to get started on.

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