Educate Girls, Eradicate Poverty - A Mutually Reinforcing Goal

There is no question that educating girls is a prerequisite for eradicating poverty. Education empowers and transforms women. It allows them to break the "traditional" cycle of exclusion that keeps them at home and disengaged from decision making. Education, especially higher education, can prepare women to take on roles of responsibility in government, business and civil society. Women make ideal leaders: numerous studies have demonstrated that they tend to allocate resources more wisely than men. For example, women spend a larger percentage of their income on food and education for their children. Thus, strengthening the economic and political role of women directly benefits the next generation. To provide an excellent university education for women is to make long-term investment in their and their children's futures.

As societies open up, they often create new opportunities for women to take on leadership roles, but these opportunities are lost when there are no trained women to assume such roles. Changes in Afghanistan, for instance, have created possibilities for women to accept more responsibilities in government and society; however, such possibilities become meaningless without a population of appropriately-qualified women. Rwanda serves as a positive example; the large numbers of women in its government have undoubtedly contributed to the peaceful and effective rebuilding of the country after the 1994 genocide. Since leadership often determines the directions of change, the ability of women to rise to leadership positions affects the progress of women's rights, as well as their future prospects.

An excellent university that specifically educates women to become capable, thoughtful and ethical leaders is vital to reducing poverty in the long term. In Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, we are putting this belief into practice by building a unique undergraduate liberal arts and postgraduate professional university. The Asian University for Women (AUW) is founded upon the conviction that women of high ability and potential can be educated to meet society's challenges and effect positive change. We aim to graduate highly trained and motivated women who will lead the fight against poverty, a global issue that most of them understand intimately from growing up in Bangladesh and other Asian countries where girls are traditionally underserved. In the words of Nobel Peace Laureate Muhammad Yunus: "Higher education can be an escalator not only for personal success, but also for the capacity one needs to transform his or her wider society."

The idea for the AUW originated from the Task Force on Higher Education and Society, convened by the World Bank and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), to examine the state of tertiary education in the developing world. Kamal Ahmad, founder of AUW and president of the AUW Support Foundation, served on the Task Force Steering Committee. In 2000, the Task Force published its findings in a report titled, Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise (http://www.tfhe.net/), which concluded that developing countries must improve the quality of their institutions of higher learning, in both governance and pedagogy, in order to compete in today's increasingly globalized, knowledge-based economy.

In previous decades in the developing world, higher education had been neglected due to the assumption that primary education provides the best return on development investment. While the development community's traditional focus on expanding primary and secondary education results in great progress in primary school enrollment, it no longer suffices. Even though transforming the education paradigm in the developing world required focusing on primary education, concentrating exclusively on it has undermined the interconnectedness of the system as a whole. The success of primary education is compromised without robust higher-education programmes, because the system cannot produce local educators, managers and innovators with the perspectives that can spring from high-level analysis. Every country needs a cohort of highly educated people to meet the demands of government and the private sector: without such expertise, the sovereignty of a nation is often imperiled. Problems of poverty require the application of the best knowledge and resources available; the arsenic problem in Bangladesh, for example, is not likely to be solved by primary or secondary school graduates. Such problems require highly-trained technical minds who can also understand the problems faced by ordinary people.

Attaining economic and social progress in the developing world requires the creation of a new cadre of highly educated women leaders who will act as agents of change. The AUW will cultivate these new leaders by recruiting the most talented female students from across the region, regardless of their background, with a special emphasis on reaching previously marginalized groups from poor, rural and refugee populations. My hope is that these women will become the missing link in development programmes that face implementation challenges made worse by a dearth of qualified, local programme leaders. Even when adequate financial resources are available, the lack of skilled leaders has often prevented effective development. Quality university programmes, such as those offered at AUW, can address this problem by producing graduates trained to overcome these challenges.

Poverty reduction, equitable globalization and sustainable reforms can only be achieved if developing countries cultivate their own leaders, capable of asserting themselves on the world stage and integrating themselves into the global economy. AUW firmly believes that selecting and educating the most talented and outstanding girls will help create local leaders who can take ownership of the development process and generate internally-driven reforms of institutional, economic and social structures. Studying at AUW with other promising young women from all over Asia will enable them to expand their occupational networks and improve their professional prospects to fulfill the priceless gift of their potential.

The students at AUW have already started on the path to becoming leaders of their countries and societies. One young woman from Cambodia, who had never used a computer, spoke in front of a crowd of thousands at the university's inaugural ceremony in October 2008, announcing her intention to return to her country and educate young girls in rural areas to use computers and the Internet. Meanwhile, one of our Bangladeshi students demonstrated remarkable insight when she declared, "Women need to get higher education and to work just like many men do. We need educated women if we want Bangladesh to become a developed country. Men alone cannot build Bangladesh."

The remarks made by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the plenary session of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, still resonate today: "What we are learning around the world is that if women are healthy and educated, their families will flourish... If women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in society, their families will flourish. And when families flourish, communities and nations do as well."

The role of female education in advancing development has never been questioned, but it is clear that higher education is a potent and often overlooked weapon in the battle against poverty. It is time for the world to invest in universities dedicated to producing the next generation of women who can lead us to equity and prosperity.