By Sophie Seidner
Weaving through the busy streets of Chittagong filled with rickshaws and pedestrians in colorful clothes, the air filled with smog and the noise of a busy city, our van reaches the gate that opens to reveal a small oasis of calm and quiet and curious students.
The Asian University for Women, located in Chittagong, Bangladesh, is a unique institution that aims to educate young Asian women to become the next generation of leaders in their communities. The undergraduate program prepares students to address the social, political, and economic issues affecting their countries’ progress and those challenges in particular that affect women.
What makes the university particularly unique is that the majority of their students are given full scholarships, many students are the first in their family to attend university, and most are from low-income families that could not otherwise afford to send their daughters to university. While students from Bangladesh make up the largest percentage of the student body, the second largest percentage of students come from Afghanistan, however the university boasts students from a number of Asian countries, including Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka.
Students at the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Chittagong, Bangladesh
Additionally, AUW has a diverse and international faculty who not only act as professors, but all faculty seem to take a keen personal interest in their students, acting as advisors and mentors. Students have positive and close relationships with their professors.
During our SAIS trip focused on women’s economic rights, we had the pleasure of meeting with both students and faculty at the Asian University for Women. We learned more about the structure of the university and the personal interests, goals, and background of the diverse student body. The students described their various internships around Asia that they completed during summer breaks and shared stories about their families and the paths that led them to AUW. What was noticeable about the students was their ability to be outspoken, desire to share their opinions, and their lack of fear about discussing women’s issues not often publically spoken about in their home communities.
We heard stories of young women whose families were very supportive of their decision to attend AUW and those who were displeased. One student had to convince her family to allow her to study economics as her mother believes that “economics is a study for men and medicine is a safer job for women because it is easier to provide for the family.” Those who lacked support from family expressed a desire to work hard and excel to prove to their community and family wrong. One Bangladeshi student said she wants to study because “parents need to teach their children to see women as equal to men.” Many students, however, had support from their parents to attend AUW and learn skills to make changes in their communities—several students were even following in the footsteps of sisters and cousins who attended AUW.
Preparations were underway for an open house at Asian University for Women (AUW)
We were able to meet with small groups of students and facilitate discussions on specific issues women face in their respective countries. Unsurprisingly, the problems were relatively the same across borders and students spoke about their specific plans for using their academic study to help resolve these issues. We discussed sexual harassment and assault, women’s empowerment and lack of equality, religious and cultural traditions preventing women from accessing labour and education, differences between rural and urban attitudes to women in the workforce, and the effect of social media on women speaking out against harassment. Some students stated that before attending AUW, they were unaware of the vast issues women face that hold them back but say that courses and interactions with professors at AUW has opened their eyes to a conversation that is unheard of in their local communities. Some students said, “the idea of men and women being equal is not acknowledged” and the country’s “religious side says women cannot be what men can be.” Because of the intimate relationship with professors who push the students to be outspoken, AUW produces a host of young, hard-working and passionate young women who will inevitably become leaders in their communities and in the region and who will be able to successfully make changes toward the advancement of women.