From garment workers to graduates

Inside the university giving Asia’s bright but poverty-stricken young women a chance.

Sabina Yeasmin was the first of her siblings to complete high school. But when her three elder sisters married, it fell to the then 18-year-old to earn enough to support her family in Bangladesh. 

In 2016, she followed her sisters into a job at a Dhaka garment factory, where she was paid $110 a month to work 10-hour shifts, six days a week. It was gruelling work involving sorting, stocking and replacing the sewing machine needles, and Sabina's hopes of continuing her studies faded.

“My sisters never wanted me to work in the garment factories, because they knew the struggles,” she says. “It was physically and mentally tiring. With the daily stress and verbal abuse, I suffered a lot.”

A lifeline came in the form of a workshop, hosted at the factory by the Asian University for Women (AUW), where she learned about a first-of-its-kind initiative to provide free university education to disadvantaged women.

“I was so inspired by the AUW alumni who gave the presentation, the way she spoke English, her confidence levels. And I thought, ‘I have to be like her,’” says Sabina today. “It was such an opportunity.”

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The AUW opened in 2008 in Chittagong to provide bright young women with access to higher education. It admits students solely on merit, whether or not they can pay tuition fees, with a recruiting ground that spans from the factories of Bangladesh to the remote hill tribes of India and Myanmar.

Its aim is to create a new generation of female leaders able to take a stronger role in shaping the region’s future - irrespective of their background.

Yeasmin secured a place on the Pathways to Promise course, a specially devised one-year pre-university programme that acts as a stepping stone to an undergraduate degree.

Some 476 women have enrolled in the programme since its launch in 2016, receiving full scholarships, free room and board, and a monthly stipend from their employers to support their families while they study. More than 90 per cent have gone on to enrol in undergraduate degrees.

“We were driven by a quest for equity and justice for women," says AUW founder Kamal Ahmad, "as well as for the world at large to see that while talent is equally distributed, opportunities are not. When you give opportunities, people rise up, shine, and show tremendous capabilities.”

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If every girl worldwide received 12 years of quality education, global lifetime earnings for women could increase by $15tn to $30tn, according to the World Bank.

Women with primary education earn up to 19 per cent more than women with no education at all, and those with secondary education earn almost twice as much.

Girls who complete secondary school are better equipped to become healthier, more prosperous adults, with smaller families and children who are less at risk of illness and death.

The AUW has a strong liberal arts curriculum offering Bachelor of Arts degrees in subjects such as economics, philosophy, environmental sciences and public health. Since opening its doors 12 years ago, more than 900 women from across the region have graduated with bachelor’s degrees, with almost all returning to their home countries to pursue careers there.

Of these, 85 per cent are now employed in government, nonprofits, and corporations, including the World Bank, UNICEF, and Accenture.

The other 15 per cent are pursuing degrees at institutions including the University of Oxford in the UK, Columbia University in New York and Goethe University in Frankfurt.

Initially, the university struggled to drum up support for its cause, Ahmad says. The idea that women from poor backgrounds could command top resources – and that textile workers, tea leaf pickers and refugees were capable of succeeding at university – was a hard sell, he says.

“One of the persistent criticisms was ‘why do you want to spend so much money on women's education? Why not just give them technical training?” he recalls. “When it comes to the education of poor people, there is a disdain for investing heavily.”

AUW, however, has taken a different approach.

“Projects aimed at poor people are usually cheap. The kind of education we provide at AUW is expensive because we bring in international faculty, and we do all we can to help these mature," Ahmad explains. "That is not often not looked at kindly by the international development community.”

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The AUW has now found a solid funding base in endowments, scholarships and in-kind donations. To date it has raised nearly $110m from a range of global entities, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, IKEA Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation.

The US State Department is one of the university’s largest scholarship providers, particularly to Afghan students.

Individual philanthropists make up around half of the university’s donor base. Its leading donor, and chairman of the AUW Support Foundation, is Jack Meyer, a renowned US investor and previously the head of Harvard Management Company, which manages Harvard University’s endowment assets, pension funds, charitable trusts, and pooled income funds.

“Aspirations get cut off at an early age. We force these girls to think that they can overcome their barriers, and that there are opportunities out there.”

Kamal Ahmad, founder of the Asian University for Women.

Ahmad says he chose his native Bangladesh for the campus because of the country’s relative political stability, and the government’s willingness to ratify AUW as an independent institution with full academic freedom.

The government has also granted AUW more than 100 acres of land to build a modern campus, with construction slated to begin in 2021. This will increase the university’s capacity to 3,000 students and allow expansion of the curriculum to include technology and engineering majors.

Today, AUW students come from 18 countries. These include Palestine; Yemen; Syria; Afghanistan; Nepal; Bhutan; Cambodia; India; Pakistan; and Bangladesh. In 2020, the total number of applicants surpassed 2,000.

With as many as 30 applications for each place, Ahmad acknowledges that many women miss out. But he believes all candidates benefit from the process.

“Aspirations get cut off at an early age,” he says. “It's rare for an adolescent girl from a certain socio-economic background to hear from anybody that she can be something. We feel even just the recruitment programme is an empowerment because we force these girls to think that they can overcome their barriers, and that there are opportunities out there.”

From the start, recruitment for the Pathways programme required out-of-the-box thinking. The team began with Rohingya refugees and garment factory workers, followed by women living in areas of conflict, and used innovative approaches to get its message out.

In Afghanistan for example, where the Taliban still persecute girls who want to go to school, AUW partnered with a major mobile phone operator, which helped them segregate female from male subscribers.

“We bombarded the female subscribers with the message ‘Do you know any bright young women who would like to go to university?’ That was really the only way we could get to some of the more conflict-ridden communities,” Ahmad says.

Nour Zraika, 21, from Syria, first heard about Pathways to Promise from her mosque’s prayer centre, where Spark of Hope, a Canada-based NGO promoting girl’s education in the Middle East and one of AUW’s scholarship partners, made an announcement about the initiative.

Zraika had just finished high school in a small village near Homs and had her heart set on studying pharmaceutics at the local university. But social pressure saw her forced into a course on food engineering instead.

Given this – and the fact the conflict was making it almost impossible for Zraika and her fellow students to attend classes safely – when she heard about AUW, she applied immediately. In 2017, she was accepted to join the Pathways programme.

Zrakia initially struggled with English and found the transition from being with family in Syria to living alone in Bangladesh very difficult.

“The first six months after I moved to Bangladesh, I had so many challenges. After spending six, seven years, living in a war crisis in Syria, it was hard for me to move to a new country and really believe I was safe,” Zrakia recalls.

“If I heard a door closing hard, I would hide under the bed. If I heard a plane or helicopter I would run to my room and hide. Even going outside with my friends, I thought the rickshaw drivers were going to kidnap me, just because they had long beards like those of ISIS in Syria,” she says.

“My friends from AUW would hold my hand and say, ‘don't be scared, this is not Syria anymore.’ After those first few months, my English got so much better, I didn’t care about making mistakes anymore, and I made so many new friends.”

Three years on, with her AUW scholarship sponsored by the Spark of Hope Foundation, Zraika has passed her Pathways and Access Academy years and is in her first year of a bachelor’s degree in public health.

With plans to gain a few years of work experience after graduation, Zraika then hopes to enrol in a Master’s degree in pharmaceutics.

“I wouldn’t have been able to achieve any of this back home,” she says.

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Andrew Jones, the director of the Pathways to Promise course, says the university’s community and surrounding activities are vital to the programme, which is about more than just academic study.

“They're thrown into this multicultural environment, which is very vibrant. But it can be quite intimidating for the new students coming in,” he says. “We work to build their confidence in the way we teach, focusing on soft skills, and following what we call ‘a whole person approach’.”

Alongside English and mathematics, Jones says Pathways students are also encouraged to do extra-curricular classes, such as karate, classical dance and singing, as well as attend events organised in and outside of the university so they can mingle with older students.

Once the students progress from Pathways through the Access Academy and eventually to their undergraduate studies, AUW faculty will help them set up internships or part time jobs to gain experience and an independent livelihood.

Rohingya students, for example, are sought after by the language nonprofit Translators Without Borders, who work with Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in the camps in the Cox’s Bazar area of Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, many Afghan students have gone to work for the civil service within Afghanistan or for other NGOs like BRAC in Bangladesh, as well as the United Nations.

In Bangladesh, some garment factories have been providing AUW students with middle management and other internship opportunities. According to Jones, many women express a preference to return to their home communities to help improve working life there for others.

Yeasmin is among them. The 23-year-old is currently studying for a BA in politics, philosophy and economics, and has also started her own foundation, Ovoya, which means ‘fearless’ in her native Bengali.

Among its initiatives is a scheme to donate sanitary towels to poor communities, and to hold workshops around menstrual hygiene and women’s health.

Most recently, she partnered with other local organisations to distribute food, water and sanitary towels to more than 500 families around Chittagong during the Covid-19 crisis.

“It’s my dream to do a Master’s in social development after graduating from AUW,” she says. “After that, I want to officially register my foundation, and create my own sanitary towel brand. I also want to go back to the garment factories and make positive changes at a policy level, to make people’s work lives better.”

“It’s created a sort of a revolution.”

Kamal Ahmad, AUW founder.

The first batch of Pathways to Promise students will complete their five years at AUW during 2020 and the impact of their studies on their lives ahead will be closely tracked.

The Covid-19 pandemic has taken its toll on AUW, as it has with other education institutions. The majority of students have been forced to return home and continue their studies online, albeit with limited access to the internet.

During 2020, just 35 students were accepted onto the Pathways course, compared to 110 in the previous year, although 75 more were due to join in January this year. And with students unable to stay on campus, they will miss out on a lot of the community interactions on which the programme is built.

Ahmad says AUW is taking measures to continue virtual learning with webinars, and it is shipping materials to the students. They are also arranging remote internships with technology companies in Europe and connecting undergraduate students with alumni mentors.

Despite these challenges, for many of its students, AUW remains a rare chance for a better life. Pandemic or not, women like Zraika and Yeasmin are determined to make something of themselves as well as to create positive change in their communities.

For AUW founder Ahmad, the university is “a noble expression of globalisation” when the concept is increasingly under threat.

“Here is an institution where people from different parts of the world have come together to serve and build something for the greater good,” he says, “and now, it’s created a sort of a revolution.

“The communities, the factory workers, the factory owners; they see these young women who speak in perfect English, who have aspirations, who have plans, and they know - this is a different world.” – PA