Bill Reed

(WOMENSENEWS)–Very soon, a shovelful of overturned dirt will mark the beginning of the first all-women’s residential international university in Asia, scheduled to open no later than 2005. The site is Kaliakor, above the dreaded Bangladesh flood zone, and presently occupied by a boarding school for girls ages 8 to 14.

A five-year residential study program at Kaliakor with master’s degrees combining liberal arts with professional training in engineering and other fields will be rare if not unique in Asia. While women’s universities exist in India, Japan, Pakistan and South Korea, they emphasize home economics. In Bangladesh, a tolerant Muslim country led by a female prime minister, the access of poorer women to higher education is nonetheless severely limited, as is true in Cambodia and Laos. All-female institutions in
Asia–such as Reddy Women’s College in Hyderabad, India, the SNDT Women’s University in Bombay, India, and the The Philippine Women’s University in Manila, The Philippines, do not provide residential living.

Creating a Cadre of Female Leaders

Backers of this Asian University for Women, according to William S. Reed, the Asian University for Women’s chief financial planner, are driven by what he said, in an interview, is a “crying need for a cadre of women to bring fresh air to political and social discourse in Asia.”

Reed, a retired financial planner for the all-female Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., said that “throughout rural and poor populations of Asia, women disproportionately suffer deprivation, violence, overwork, ill health, malnutrition and despair. We can create a university where Asian women can study and bond together and return to their own countries in positions of leadership. And this will add political stability to a region which has experienced frequent and persistent ethnic and religious conflicts.”

The course of study in Bangladesh will include three years of undergraduate study, primarily in the humanities–not widely available to Asian women–combined with two years of professional training in one of five fields: management, public policy, education, environmental engineering and informational technology. Students who complete the program will emerge with master’s degrees. “Only a master’s degree wins respect in Asia,” says Reed. “Everyone is supposed to eventually become either a medical doctor or engineer.”

Planners envision the university eventually having a student body of 2,000 students from 20 Asian countries. It will be staffed by an Asian faculty who will teach courses in English. A career placement office will guide graduates to the first jobs.

The Asian University for Women is the brain-child of Kamal Ahmad, a lawyer from Bangladesh who is co-director of the World Bank/UNESCO Task Force on Higher Education and Society. His interest in the project began years ago, when, as a teen-ager, he tutored female household servants and realized how confined they were by their limited education. Ahmad himself was educated in the United States at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., and at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Planners have won pledges of support not only from the current prime minister, Khaleda Zia, but from her main political opponent in the upcoming 2005 elections, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, another woman. Both politicians have agreed to the government grant of 100 acres of land, generous in one of the most heavily populated countries in the world.

Full Scholarships to Prevent Elitism

Annual tuition and board will be $3,000, a fortune in a country where the average per-capita income is $185 a year. The school, however, is determined to give full scholarships to 50 percent of the entering class of 400 and to maintain that level of aid throughout the program.

“This is to ensure the university is not just for super-elites,” said Reed, who spent four years in India during the 1970s with the Ford Foundation helping to establish the eight campuses of the Indian Institute of Technology, patterned on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. To prepare students to enter the Asian University for Women, Reed said that backers may have to extend scholarships to feeder private secondary schools in Asia.

Building costs are expected to reach $150 million. So far Ahmad himself has raised nearly $2 million. The billionaire currency speculator George Soros has donated $600,000 through his New York City foundation and over $1 million in matching funds have been pledged by the U.S. Agency for International Development through its Partnership Alliance in Washington D.C. Fund-raising is now in the hands of Steve Greeley, head of DCA, Inc., a private Boston firm. While the financial goal is high, Greeley said that success was “in sight.” Once raised, the university’s endowment will be managed by the board of trustees of the Asian University for Women Support Foundation, based in New York.

Cultural Obstacles Anticipated

Fund-raising challenges aside, planners also know they face cultural obstacles. In many parts of the region, for instance, arranged marriages for women as young as 14 are common and the families of such women many not want them to curtail their domestic duties in order to attend a university.

Savitri Goonesekere, curriculum planner for the Asian University for Women, said in an interview, that “some students who are admitted may have to defy their families in order to actually attend.” Because the university is specifically recruiting women from impoverished backgrounds, candidates may also find it difficult, later, to find husbands with accomplishments equal to their own.

However, planners are trying to harmonize in whatever way possible with the cultural values prevalent in Asia. Goonesekere, former vice chancellor of Colombo University in Sri Lanka, says she believed that many parents who would not allow their unmarried daughters to take part in coeducational studies will be comfortable allowing them to attend a single-sex institution. Goonesekere adds married women will also be accepted as students.

While poorer married women may have a harder time attending the university, it would not be a stretch for wealthier married women to attend, says Veena Chorgade, a medical consultant in Natick, Mass., who was educated in India.

“Married female students among the higher social classes are common in Asia and are comfortable in the classroom,” Chorgade said in an interview. “In Hyderabad, India, married Muslim students hang their veils in their lockers while attending class and then restore the veils when they leave the campus for the street outside.”

Last year, organizers held a kick-off planning session at Wellesley College. Later in the year, a handful of other advisers journeyed to Dhaka, Bangladesh to plan with the minister of education, Muhammad Osman Farruk. Members of the team included: Wellesley’s William S. Reed; Beverly M. Armstrong, vice president of finance and administration for Pathfinder International, a reproductive healthcare concern that focuses on the developing world; New York architect Doug Wright; and David Fraser, former president of Swarthmore College and a public-health expert.

A planning session was held in Dhaka for curriculum in January of this year and was led by Gooneskere, Fran Volkman, former president of the all-female Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago.

Mary Meier is a freelance writer living in Madison, N.H.

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