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Unfinished Agenda: From Consciousness to Commitments
New York, United States
26, Sep, 2014

On September 26, 2014, the Asian University for Women and the Asia Society held an event titled “Teaching Half the Sky: From Policies to Practice in Girls’ Education,” where discussion focused on the discord between growing awareness of the challenges in ensuring girls around the world have access to full education, and the lack of correlating increased funding for related endeavors. The discussions were led by the Japanese First Lady Akie Abe, who is also a Patron of the Asian University for Women.  First Lady Abe was joined on the panel by Terri McCullough, formerly Chief of Staff to U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and now Director of No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project of the Clinton Foundation; Sheena Iyengar, professor at the Columbia Business School and head of the Global Leadership Matrix Institute; and Mursal Hamraz, an Asian University for Women 2014 graduate from Afghanistan who is currently working with the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics in Kabul. The event was moderated by Josette Sheeran, President of the Asia Society, and Young Joon Kim, Chairman of the Asian University for Women Support Foundation.

The discussion focused on what has been achieved in the nearly twenty years since the Beijing Conference on Women and the glaring gaps that remain in the agenda for women’s education and empowerment.  First Lady Abe of Japan, who has founded a school of her own in Myanmar, reaffirmed the power of educating women.  She recalled visiting the Asian University for Women in Chittagong and meeting first-hand the young women from so many countries, most of whom were first in their family to ever enter university and who were so dedicated to learning.  She noted that she was in particular struck by seeing students coming from conflict areas and rediscovering the common humanity that bound them together.  “If you want peace, this is essential,” she said.

Terri McCullough, the Director of the No Ceilings Project at the Clinton Foundation, acknowledged the tremendous progress made in girls’ empowerment and education, particularly at the primary levels, but noted how at higher levels the numbers tapered off dangerously.  Unless the rising consciousness on women’s empowerment and education issues is translated to better policies and appropriate resource allocations, the opportunity for lasting change will elude us.

Sheena Iyengar, who became completely before graduating high school, spoke of her own life’s experience growing up in an Indian family with traditional values where she was fortunate to have a mother insisting on education in spite of the cultural pulls otherwise.  She spoke of the immeasurable importance of women who are first in their family to forge the path to university, and recalled how her own aunt was the first one in the family to pursue education in spite of disillusioning opposition. Once those barriers were broken, it made the paths that Professor Iyengar and her mother followed unavoidable.

Mursal speaking

Mursal Hamraz, AUW Alumna

Mursal Hamraz, one of nine children, spoke also of family members who clandestinely taught her in the evenings away from school. Her elder sister had taught her from first grade till fifth during the Taliban regime so that her time would not be wasted during these years; as a result, she joined sixth grade in 2001. Her father played a large role in encouraging her to go further and not stop in her journey for education. Mursal spoke of her work with the Ministry of Counter Narcotics where she and two of her fellow AUW graduates are among the very few women in the government agency.  She feels encouraged by how her education and ability to contribute to the work of the Ministry have helped overcome inhibitions that her male colleagues might have had in working and collaborating with women.  The advantage of a great education and competence has made equality that much easier to secure.  With this personal perspective, Mursal spoke of education of women as the key in changing the situation in Afghanistan, for women and men as well. Describing the barriers women face in Afghanistan by being shut out of the public sphere, Mursal urged the international community to lend their support for women’s education, a powerful tool for empowerment.  “Nothing,” she said, “can be as powerful as educating our women to the best levels we can.  I am grateful for the education I received at the Asian University for Women.”

Sheena Iyengar, YJ Kim, Josette Sheeran Asia Society

Professor Sheena Iyengar of Columbia Business School; Young Joon Kim, Chairman of the Asian University for Women Support Foundation; and Josette Sheeran, President of the Asia Society

The program was moderated by YJ Kim, Chairman of AUW Support Foundation and Partner at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley, and McCloy and Ms. Josette Sheeran, the President of the Asia Society and former Executive Director of the World Food Program.  Among the active participants were Ms. Emily Rafferty, President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; Dr. Dipu Moni, former Foreign Minister of Bangladesh; Ms. Saima Hossain, Chair of the National Advisory Committee on Autism in Bangladesh; Ms. Patience Stephens, Director and Special Advisor at UN Women; Kamal Ahmad, the Founder of the Asian University for Women; and Samantha Wright, Vice President of Global Programs at Girl Rising.

Since the Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995, the world’s citizens have been watching women’s rights as they take root and manifest, sometimes haltingly, in different regions. Following the declaration of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, the education of girls and women has been acknowledged as a key factor in achieving gender equality and promoting economic growth and improved health indices across the world. By some measures, this growing awareness has prompted impressive growth in girls’ educational access and achievement. For instance, female primary school enrollment has reached parity with male enrollment in most countries. However, by other measures — secondary and tertiary enrollment, or rates of child marriage or violence against women — the world’s women are still suffering inordinately.

The discussion this morning at the Asia Society emphasized the disconnect between growing consciousness in recent years of the plight of girls and women, and the lack of increased aid or philanthropy towards women’s education in the developing world. The world may have screamed when Malala Yousafzai was shot in the neck by the Taliban in Pakistan when she was returning from school; in 2012 the world rallied behind Jyoti Singh Pandey after her brutal rape in South Delhi, and her tragic death; and the world tweeted and shared its way into the viral “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign after hundreds of schoolgirls were kidnapped in Nigeria. Yet against this backdrop of pathos, funding for women’s complete education — an education that includes tertiary-level instruction — still lags far behind demand.

The Asian University for Women, First Lady Abe explained, is one institution that is answering the need for women to gain access to higher level education and earn the skills and leadership required to make significant changes in their countries. One of its founding principles is the recruitment of talented young women who could not afford to pay for university out of their own pockets, so the Asian University for Women (AUW) devotes itself to securing scholarships for its students, all while providing a world-class liberal arts education and cultivating the next generation of women leaders of the Asian and Middle Eastern regions. It is in institutions such as AUW, recent alumna Mursal Hamraz argued, that funders of girls’ and women’s empowerment should invest.

The Asian University for Women (AUW) is an international university with an Asia focus located in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Now in its seventh year of operations, AUW boasts a student body from 15 different countries across Asia and the Middle East, and has graduated more than 260 alumnae so far. AUW offers a high-caliber liberal arts education for young women interested in topics ranging from public health to politics to computer science. AUW graduates have gone on to work in business, international development agencies, government institutions, and research facilities, always proving their commitment to using their passion and leadership to tackle challenges facing their home countries and women around the world. As a rising network of women leaders, AUW alumnae are growing into the Asian region’s next generation of change-markers.