“How am I supposed to become a leader when women in my village are murdered for leading?” a young Afghani student asked the panel of speakers assembled on stage. It was the first question asked at the opening ceremony of the Women in Public Service Institute at the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Bangladesh. The honest, yet upsetting question not only set the one for the Institute it also set the caliber for the weeks to come.
Spending a week observing the 43 hand selected students of the Asian University for Women was beyond inspiring. Each and every single one of the students had a unique tale of how they came to be at AUW and how their education will allow them to become leaders in their countries. As one student stated, “We think we are so different, we are so diverse, but we share the same dreams.” Over the week, these dreams were unpacked and Dr.Rangita De Silva imparted insight into policy strategies that would allow the students to be the catalysts for change in their communities. Topics throughout the week varied from domestic violence, education, body image and social media to systems of patriarchy.
What I admired the most was the students’ ability to combine policy ideas and strategies with their every day lives. Dr. De Silva’s lessons were put into practice immediately as the students developed interactive role plays around the day’s topics and strategies to remedy them. Their presentations took Dr. De Silva’s lessons were put into practice when they roleplayed how changes and developments in policy could directly benefit their communities.
One group focused on the need for free, universal education for all children, especially for girls. They pretended to be government representatives, NGO’s, child experts, community developers and even the World Bank. They debated realistic issues such as parents believing their daughters are worth more to the family whilst performing domestic duties rather than receiving an education. In the end they developed a policy that would provide families with economic incentives to send their daughters to school.
Moreover, they developed a policy that would simultaneously educate older generations, in order to break down stereotypes and create a more well-informed nation. Families who would send their children to school would not only receive an economic incentive but a radio as well that would broadcast their children’s lessons. Within hours the students had mastered the understanding of a true ‘bottom up’ approach and developed a creative strategy that could bring about long-lasting change in their lives and in their immediate families and communities. The determination to share their personal success by bringing about change in their communities is palatable.
As one student described in her personal narrative, “I like the expectations (the community places on her). I represent a whole community, not just myself. However, I want to be more than what people expect.”
The personal narratives were a staple of the daily sessions and my favorite part of the Institute. The end of the day was dedicated to individual students who spoke of their personal journeys, passions, visions and time at AUW. As inspiring as all of their narratives were, a common theme of discrimination they faced for being female in their countries was threaded through the stories. The discrimination they have experienced first-hand is the content of textbooks anyone in women’s studies has read and studied. The candid manner in which the students told their stories about being excluded, becoming a refugee, not having access to education and being shunned from their families was shocking and difficult to process. Having these students lend these stories a face and a voice is an incredibly powerful experience.
More powerful is knowing that they have overcome so much in their young lives and have drawn strength from their experiences in order to attend AUW and fight back. Not only did they present their personal narratives, they question the very existence of the wrongs they have suffered and demand solutions to each and every one of them. Rightfully, each of the students believe that they are part of the solution.
The Institute did so much more than unpack where these young women came from; it gave them a roadmap and a toolkit to navigate wherever they are going next. One of the most important of those tools being the very community they have created for themselves at AUW. As a volunteer at AUW, my personal goal this year will be to further assist all of the students in
becoming part of the change they so desperately want for themselves and their families. I may not possess the skills that Dr. De Silva has laid out before them during the weeks of the institute, however, I believe that I can bring about the spirit of the institute by reminding them daily that they are leaders already and that one day, “their words will become quotes that are read the world over”.
Jennifer Glinski, World Teach Volunteer