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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Asian University for Women: a triumph of hope over despair

Photo: AUW student Linda Gayathree, 19, Sri Lanka

ELEVEN YEARS ago, a World Bank/UNESCO report sparked a vision for Kamal Ahmad of creating a university for women. Today, women from 13 countries – including Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan – are attending the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh, where Mr. Ahmad is the acting chancellor.

At a time when liberal values are under threat, particularly in this part of the world, the establishment of AUW’s campus is a triumph of hope over despair.

Recently, I had the privilege of joining dozens of international leaders – including Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Cherie Blair, a leading human-rights lawyer and wife of former British prime minister Tony Blair – at a symposium at AUW. It was an opportunity to see the progress that Mr. Ahmad had made and to meet some of the students – women who will become Asia’s and the world’s future leaders.

For now, the AUW is leasing space in downtown Chittagong. But the Bangladeshi government has donated 130 acres of land to create a permanent campus. Montreal-trained architect Moshe Safdie is designing the campus, and soon the halls and corridors of the beautiful buildings will be populated by bright young women.

To set a broader context for why AUW’s success is so important, let me paint a picture of the planet we call home.

Today, at the same time our world enjoys enormous potential, it also faces extraordinary challenges that threaten our very existence as a species. These challenges include environmental degradation, scarcity of food, and want for safe drinking water – even in some of our communities in Canada.
The threats also include abject poverty, human-rights violations and discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity and gender. And women are affected in far more substantive and destructive ways than men. This is tragic for all humanity, because women represent the bedrock of our families and our communities.

In fact, it’s clearly evident that, for societies to be able to make progress, women must be given equal opportunity, and they must be allowed to play leadership roles.

Within this context, there’s no better tool than education to level the playing field for women and to bring about the kind of social change that will benefit all of humanity. Otherwise, we limit the potential for developing the leaders our world so desperately needs to only half the population.

My passion for AUW comes, in part, because I know first-hand how education can transform lives. Education has been critical throughout my life. Indeed, it has shaped who I am today.

As a boy from a tribe in the hills of southeastern Bangladesh – facing challenges brought about by war and political conflict – neither I nor my parents ever dreamed that I would have the privilege of being president of the University of Western Ontario, a 133-year-old Canadian institution.

My parents had did not have the financial means to attend university, but they placed great value on education. My mother played a very special role in instilling in me the important values, such as striving for excellence in education.

It’s those same values that women who attend the Asian University for Women receive. Through educating these bright young women, AUW is tapping into the full potential of all humanity to create leaders who will transform our communities and our world. #

First published in Globe and Mail, Canada, March. 08, 2011

Amit Chakma is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Western Ontario

© 2011 The Globe and Mail Inc. All Rights Reserved

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