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Asian University for Women helping Rohingya refugees into higher education as it marks its 10th anniversary

Bangladesh-based Asian University for Women has spent years gaining the trust of Rohingya community leaders to help provide disadvantaged young women with higher education; now it is also targeting garment factory workers.

Since last August, nearly 700,000 members of Myanmar’s Rohingya community have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh. Ordinarily, the women among them would have few future prospects and little opportunity to find gainful employment. But this is one thing the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Bangladesh is trying to change, by helping women from the displaced Rohingya community into higher education to give them a brighter future.

The university has spent years working to gain the trust of the community’s leaders, and Rohingya women now make up just under 10 per cent of AUW’s student body, says Kamal Ahmad, CEO of the Bangladeshi university.

ounded in 2008, the university – which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month– offers full scholarships to nearly all of its students, who are admitted on the basis of merit, regardless of their family’s income level.

Funded by independent charitable foundations and proceeds generated from gala events, the university has grown to enrol more than 700 students a year. Once its new purpose-built campus has been constructed, it will be able to provide learning for 3,000 women.

Establishing connections with hard-to-reach communities such as the Rohingya is not an easy task, Ahmad explains.

“Across South and Southeast Asia there are 30 million people that live in mountain communities – from Kachin in Burma to Nagaland in India to the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh,” he says.

“Some move higher up, partly to avoid the problems that come with state regulation. But by doing that, they also remove themselves from services like education and health. Apart from a handful of missionaries, there’s no real education service. We felt the university had to reach out to these remote mountain communities.”

Ahmad explains that there are three requirements in successfully getting women living in remote villages to enrol in higher education: forming bonds with trusted individuals and organisations within those communities; flexibility at entry that compensates for any previous lack of education; and scholarships that help convince families that it is worth sending their daughters away.

Even when these requirements have been met, there can still be psychological barriers to overcome. “Even if the families have a bit of money, the moment you ask for them to invest in girls’ education – even a few dollars to make the bus trip to take the tests – somehow it becomes impossible to come up with the money,” Ahmad says.

“So when we visit these areas we insist that whether you have shoes or no shoes, it doesn’t matter – as long as the young woman has courage and the intellectual wherewithal, we will find a way.”

Given the wide variation in ability of its entrants, the university launched a Pathways for Promise programme last year which provides underprivileged students with intensive classes in English, maths and computer literacy.

“We have this dual challenge,” Ahmad says. “We want to create a high-quality university but we also have a commitment to reach women who are ordinarily bypassed by the system at large. There’s a constant tension between quality and access.”

As well as reaching out to the Rohingya community, the university has also begun working with garment factory workers in Bangladesh. In January 2016, 15 workers out of hundreds of applicants were admitted onto the Pathways for Promise programme, starting their higher education journey on full scholarships from the Ikea Foundation. So far, more than 100 female factory workers in total have been enrolled on the programme.

“We go to the factories and offer the admissions test to factory workers,” Ahmad says. “We tell them, ‘If you don’t take the test you’ll never know.’ Again, more than 100 women who were stuck in these essentially dead-end jobs in hopeless conditions are now making progress. Many of them now aspire to set up their own factories. And so, a variety of communities [for whom] you’d think a university education would be entirely unreachable have suddenly become a possibility.”

One “outstanding example” of an AUW graduate, Ahmad says, is a young woman from the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh named Duth Kimsru, who found a copy of the university’s brochure in her local grocers.

“The brochures were written in English and I know only a little bit [of] English,” Kimsru recalled during a speech she made at an AUW event in Japan in 2014, not long after graduating. “But I was so excited at the pictures that I had seen, that I sat with the brochures and an English dictionary to check almost every word until I could understand what it said.” She applied for a place and managed to get in.

After graduating, Duth accepted a job with a charity focused on education and youth leadership in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which encourages girls to stay in school.

“She goes on a motorcycle from village to village rallying young girls to continue their education and not give up on their dreams,” Ahmad says.

In recognition of her work, Kimsru, along with nine other “emerging leaders” in Southeast Asia, was invited to meet former US president Barack Obama at an event hosted by the Obama Foundation in Singapore in March.

Such stories reassure Ahmad that the university is achieving its goal of elevating disadvantaged women. Around 25 per cent of the university’s undergraduate students go on to study postgraduate degrees and many have found work that would have ordinarily been out of their reach.

“If you go to Afghanistan, whether you go to the president’s office or the first lady’s office or the ministries, you will most likely see young women who are our graduates,” Ahmad says. “These young women, their lives are transformed.”



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