HIGHER LEARN­ING

The Asian Univer­sity for Women em­pow­ers women across the re­gion through ed­u­ca­tion, en­abling them to break out of pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­eties. The univer­sity cel­e­brates its 10th year this month with a fundrais­ing ben­e­fit in Hong Kong, writes Em­i­lie Yabut-ra­zon

Hong Kong Tatler - - Life | Philanthropy -

Ma­sooma Mag­soodi lived most of her child­hood as a refugee in Iran af­ter the 1979 Soviet in­va­sion of Afghanistan forced her fam­ily to flee. Af­ter high school, she went to work in her un­cle’s car­pen­try busi­ness as refugees were not en­ti­tled to higher ed­u­ca­tion, and there was grow­ing pres­sure for her to marry. “I was ha­rassed in the streets, and I used to blame my­self for do­ing some­thing wrong that led to it: my cloth­ing, my make-up, the way I talked, or the time of day I was out,” Ma­sooma re­calls. When she re­turned to Afghanistan, things were no bet­ter. “I was told not to laugh loudly, stay out af­ter sun­set, not to at­tract at­ten­tion. So­ci­ety told me that if I wanted to live a nor­mal life, I had to fol­low the so­cial norms, to hide my­self un­der a burka, to hide my thoughts and feel­ings.”

With no money or op­por­tu­nity for fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion, Ma­sooma was des­tined to live life in the shad­ows—were it not for the Asian Univer­sity for Women (AUW). She heard about it from a friend, ap­plied to its schol­ar­ship pro­gramme and was ad­mit­ted in 2010 as a pol­i­tics, phi­los­o­phy and eco­nomics ma­jor—the first mem­ber of her fam­ily and first woman from her com­mu­nity to go to univer­sity. While study­ing at the cam­pus in Chit­tagong, Bangladesh, she took part in a lead­er­ship sem­i­nar co-spon­sored by the US State Depart­ment that led to her de­vel­op­ing a Us­funded study on street ha­rass­ment in Afghanistan.

“My ed­u­ca­tion at AUW ex­panded my world view, raised my self-con­fi­dence and en­cour­aged me to dream big and take bold ac­tion to build a bet­ter world for my­self and my com­mu­nity,” says Ma­sooma. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, she started work­ing for the Afghanistan Hu­man Rights and Democ­racy Or­gan­i­sa­tion, and be­came a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to a Farsi/dari news­pa­per, writ­ing about the daily chal­lenges fac­ing Afghan women.

Hers is just one of many in­spir­ing sto­ries you’ll hear from the grad­u­ates of AUW, who num­ber more than 1,200 young women from 15 de­vel­op­ing coun­tries in Asia and the Mid­dle East. The in­sti­tu­tion of­fers a world-class lib­eral arts ed­u­ca­tion to women from disadvantaged back­grounds. It’s mis­sion: to cre­ate the next gen­er­a­tion of ca­pa­ble and vi­sion­ary fe­male lead­ers.

A re­cent United Na­tions study found that two out of three il­lit­er­ate adults in the world are fe­male, and that South Asia has more child brides than any other re­gion, with 59 per cent of girls in Bangladesh mar­ried be­fore the age of 18. The Asian De­vel­op­ment Bank es­ti­mates that poorly ed­u­cated women, hav­ing lim­ited ac­cess to em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties, lose tens of bil­lions of dol­lars a year through lack of work or be­ing ex­ploited in the the un­reg­u­lated, in­for­mal sec­tor.

AUW aims to ad­dress these is­sues through its pro­grammes and ed­u­ca­tors from all over the world. The univer­sity’s lead­er­ship team speaks for it­self. The chan­cel­lor is hu­man rights lawyer Cherie Blair, the wife of for­mer Bri­tish prime min­is­ter Tony Blair. Founder Ka­mal Ah­mad, a Bangladesh-amer­i­can lawyer, has worked at Unesco and the Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion, and has re­ceived numer­ous awards for his de­vel­op­ment work. AUW pa­trons in­clude for­mer US first lady Laura Bush and for­mer Sri Lankan pres­i­dent Chan­drika Ban­daranaike Ku­maratunga.

On June 12, the univer­sity will hold its an­nual fundrais­ing ben­e­fit at the JW Mar­riott Ho­tel in Hong Kong. The evening will fea­ture a live auc­tion of once-in-a-life­time ex­pe­ri­ences, which last year in­cluded a din­ner for 10 in Lon­don with the Blairs. This year, the univer­sity is seek­ing part­ners to en­dow pro­fes­sor­ships, sup­port schol­ar­ships, and pro­vide books and lab equip­ment.

Funded by do­na­tions, AUW se­lects stu­dents on merit and po­ten­tial, re­gard­less of fam­ily in­come. The ma­jor­ity of its stu­dents, who are given full schol­ar­ships, are the first mem­ber of their fam­i­lies to at­tend univer­sity. Dur­ing their stud­ies, they par­tic­i­pate in a men­tor­ship pro­gramme and ex­pe­ri­ence three dif­fer­ent sum­mer in­tern­ships: with a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion, a private com­pany, and an en­trepreneur. In Hong Kong, in­tern­ship spon­sors in­clude the Mar­riott Ho­tel Group, AIA, Li & Fung, PWC and Tory Burch.

Cherie Blair un­der­lines the im­por­tance of in­sti­tu­tions like AUW: “At a time when there is still so much strife in the world based on our in­her­ited iden­ti­ties, AUW shows that yet an­other world is pos­si­ble where young women from dif­fer­ent up­bring­ings can come to­gether, first, in sol­i­dar­ity with each other, and sec­ond, in sup­port­ing a wider vi­sion of chang­ing their com­mu­ni­ties to­gether.”

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