By Freddie Sleiffer
SAIS students visit the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh
On January 10th I had the opportunity to embark on a trip with the SAIS Women Lead program to India and Bangladesh. Throughout the trip we met with international organizations and micro-finance institutions working to promote the integration of women into the workforce, which is necessary to expedite economic growth and development for these South Asian countries. In talking to individuals and organizations, it became apparent that the greatest hurdle in doing so is the cultural mindset related to educating women and then allowing them to pursue a career in their desired field.
The most insightful and inspirational part of the trip for me was our visit to the Asian University for Women (AUW), based in Chittagong, Bangladesh. AUW, which was launched with the support of SAIS alumnae Kathy Matsui and Kathy Pike, gives women throughout Asia the opportunity to obtain a university degree and analytical skills that enable them to become leaders in their communities in promoting human and economic development. Throughout our time there we met with young women from a variety of countries, including Afghanistan, China, and Nepal.
On our last morning we gathered with the students in small groups to hear about their backgrounds and the challenges that they faced as educated women in their communities. While some students expressed that they had the utmost support from their parents in pursuing a higher education and had even been pushed to do so, this was not the case for all. A few students mentioned that part of the resistance from family members and/or communities came as a result of the field of study that they intended to pursue during their time at AUW. It became apparent during multiple visits on our trip that females in both India and Bangladesh are typically expected to embark on careers in medicine or teaching. This was something that students pursuing a degree in economics or political economy at AUW had also struggled with, despite having clear thoughts on how to use their degree to help their communities to develop economically and potentially set up organizations in doing so.
Finally, it became apparent that throughout most areas of India and Bangladesh, that it is the husband’s family in an eventual marriage that decides whether or not a woman is allowed to work. Unfortunately, a few AUW students feared this might be their fate and stated that they would try to avoid getting married until they were several years into their career when they would have more leverage.
The young women at AUW clearly felt empowered by their opportunity to receive an undergraduate education and are some of the most motivated individuals that I have ever met. It is my hope that they can bring about a change in the mindsets of those who may disapprove of either their education or career. Through contact with these inspired women, these countries may be able to change over the course of several generations in order to further their economic development.