This article is part of a sponsored collaboration between the Ethical Writers Coalition and the Asian University for Women.
Sathy Haldar hopes that in the future she will have the opportunity to encourage other young girls to pursue their schooling. The daughter of farmers, Ms. Haldar worked at a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh as one of 5,000 employees before enrolling in the Asian University for Women (AUW) located in downtown Chittagong. AUW educates and empowers women by identifying talent where its potential is ignored and establishing networks of educated women and their allies in order to cultivate the next generation of leaders in Asia and the Middle East.
Ms. Haldar, thinking about her own future and better job prospects, emphasizes that, even if young women are discouraged from doing so,“they should still follow the path to education.” Educational empowerment like this is woven throughout AUW’s new enrollment initiative, Pathways for Promise, which identifies talented women among current garment factory workers and provides them with the academic, financial, and professional support to earn their Bachelor’s degrees and become leaders in their chosen fields.
THE POWER OF POTENTIAL
Like Sathy Haldar, Rubina Yeasmin saw Pathways as an opportunity for advancement. After traveling to Dhaka for a job to help her mother provide for their family, Ms. Yeasmin secured a job in a garment factory with the help of a neighbor. She worked 12-hour days, six days a week for two years (and was often required to work on her off day as well) before learning about the AUW admissions exam from factory officials. Bangladesh has nearly four million women who work in the garment sector and AUW reasoned that any group that large must contain some extraordinary talent. The university offered admissions tests on the shop floors of factories as well as huge incentives to participating factory owners — workers accepted for admission would continue to receive their monthly wages for all five years at AUW. Ms. Yeasmin’s mother, who had always hoped she would be able to continue her education, encouraged her to apply. Over a thousand workers applied and now more than 30 former garment workers, including Ms. Yeasmin, are enrolled in Pathways.
MAKING SPACE FOR MARGINALIZED WOMEN
According to another student, Halima Akter, refugees are often ignored in Bangladesh and lack proper health facilities or the opportunity to pursue higher education. AUW created Pathways for Promise specifically to reach into communities that remain underserved, including Ready-Made Garments (RMG) workers, Rohingya ethnic minorities, and daughters of Grameen Bank borrowers. The Rohingya ethnic minority, in particular, have long been oppressed — both as unrecognized citizens in Burma and unwanted entrants in Bangladesh. Through a concerted effort with community leaders, 50 Rohingya women from Bangladesh and Burma have enrolled in Pathways. Upon graduation, they will quite possibly represent the largest single cohort of Rohingya women educated to such a high level.
AUW students — representing 15 countries, over 35 ethnicities, and 25 languages — live and study together, expanding their worldviews and embracing cross-cultural diversity. Because Pathways for Promise upholds that English language is not a heuristic for intelligence, they consciously make space for women who represent severely underserved groups. Students are selected based on their demonstration of academic ability, commitment to one’s community, and leadership potential — measured by empathy, courage, and a sense of outrage at injustice. Ms. Akter, advocating for the importance of education and rights for women and girls says, “I want to get established and inspire everyone. I want to prove that girls [and refugees] are just as capable…in every aspect of life. I want to pave the way for other girls my age so they can do something with their lives.”
THE FUTURE IS FEMALE
According to the UN Millennium Project’s report, “Taking Action: Achieving Gender Equality and Empowering Women,” the “effects of women’s [post-primary] education are manifested in a variety of ways, including increased income-earning potential, ability to bargain for resources within the household, decision making autonomy, control over their own fertility, and participation in public life.” A companion report clarifies that the knock-on effects of education “depend, in particular, on a supportive economic environment.” This is where Pathways gets it right. During its inaugural year, student retention was at 96% and upon completion of their degrees, these women will have the unique opportunity to change the garment industry from the inside out. Rubina Yeasmin wants to join management in her factory after graduating; Sathy Haldar hopes to earn a more secure living than her parents by obtaining a higher position once her degree is under her belt.
Graduates are not required to return to the RMG industry after graduation. However, the combination of their personal experiences on the factory floor, along with their education and leadership training, positions them to contribute a unique perspective to support the industry’s sustainable development. AUW alumnae work in nonprofit organizations, research institutes, private companies, and schools. Roughly two-fifths of graduates have gone on to teach or work in the private sector; 36% of graduates have gone on to work in nonprofits or government. For her part, Halima Akter wants to develop education and health infrastructures for the girls in her refugee community: “I want to work with groups of like-minded people so that I can provide low-cost health services and scholarships for education. I want others to get the same opportunity as I did.”
With the blessings of their factory, and the financial support of AUW, well-prepared women will move into management and other high-level positions in greater numbers. Their positive effect will in turn support other women, ultimately strengthening both industry and the economy in Asia and the Middle East. The aim of Pathways is not only to empower women to become leaders in their communities and careers, but also to dismantle prejudices against women and the working-class more generally. To this end, they have established an extension program called Education Cells. Current students and recent graduates offer weekly classes to garment factory workers and women in low-income communities, an arrangement that benefits both groups. For the garment workers, the curriculum mirrors the Pathways program (English, math, and computer literacy) and provides further education, role models, and possible recruitment into formal enrollment at AUW. For the AUW students, Education Cells is an opportunity to sharpen their leadership skills through teaching and mentorship.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Sea change like this takes time. Pathways for Promise doesn’t have the consumeristic reward of a one-for-one model or the feel-good gratification of a crowdfunding campaign, but it is more sustainable and disruptive to entrenched systems. On a global scale, by way of cheap goods, we benefit from the exploitation of workers (especially women in developing countries). We can wear as many feminist slogan tees as we like, but without concrete action and change, they are merely empty sentiments. And without change to the garment industry, those same tees may be made under conditions which are exploitative to the women producing them. The way that we shop can mitigate some of the damage, but will not change the underlying system. We can promote and vote for regulations that root out human trafficking and dangerous working conditions; we can encourage the women now on the front lines in their fight and amplify their voices; we can support them financially. On this, the eve of International Women’s Day (as well as A Day Without A Woman), I urge you to honor the women who fought for you to have access to education and to cheer on initiatives like Pathways for Promise.
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Send a message of encouragement to the students via AUW on their Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Tag your message with #PathwaysforPromise. (Feel free to download these images to use with attribution to me.)