With the women of Afghanistan, Cambodia, Vietnam and other poor nations in mind, an international group of leaders in education and development has begun raising money to establish a private university for women in Asia that would be accessible to the poor.
The proposed university, initially with the size and curriculum of a small liberal arts college, would include students from all Asian cultures, many on scholarships, said Lone Dybkjaer, a member of the European Parliament and a former Danish environment minister, who is a co-chairwoman of a group that announced plans last week for the institution.
Her co-chairwoman is Prime Minister Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh, who has offered to donate the land for the new university. Her government is also considering an act of Parliament to ensure the college's independence in a part of the world where private universities are rare and government-supported schools are subject to political pressures.
"I see this as a sort of role model, to stress the importance of higher education for women," Dybkjaer said in an interview in New York last week while meeting with American foundations being asked to contribute. She said traditionally, what focus there has been on the education of girls has often stopped with primary and secondary schools.
M. Osman Farruk, a former World Bank economist who is education minister of Bangladesh, was also in New York last week to meet with potential donors. The university needs to raise $100 million to cover start-up costs and the initial endowment, its organizers say.
Farruk and Kamal Ahmad, a corporate lawyer in London who is acting as a pro bono administrator of the university until recruitment of a staff can begin next year, said that the goal is to open the school by September 2005. Hiring an administrative staff and a faculty will begin by the middle of next year, they said. They hope to attract Asian women for academic and administrative jobs.
Dybkjaer said Bangladesh would be a good site for the new school, to be called the Asian University for Women. Bangladesh, an Islamic country, "has a good attitude toward women," she said. "There is a strong civil society."
Bangladesh, though not without political violence, has been generally receptive to outside development organizations and has many strong private agencies of its own, working on environmental issues and women's health, among other areas.
Dhaka, the capital, has an international center for research on diarrheal diseases, and its generally good experience in dealing with successive governments provides an example for the new university, Farruk said.
He is hoping to send Bangladeshi women to the college. The country has a system of subsidies to keep girls in school by rewarding their families. It has a private college for women, but it is devoted to home economics.
The founders of the new university have met some resistance in Europe, Dybkjaer said, because private universities and especially colleges solely for women are considered unacceptable by many educators. But she said she had been told in Asia that many women need what they call an "unthreatening" environment for study, where a dominant male society cannot intrude.