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A New Year's Resolution to Benefit the World: Education for Women

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In the holiday spirit of peace on Earth and good will toward men, I would argue that more good will toward women, notably in terms of education, would contribute to more peace on Earth.

The plight of women in many regions of the world remains dire. Two-thirds of the illiterate people on the planet are women. These women are illiterate not because they don't care about learning, but because they are not considered fit for or worthy of an education. They are excluded from schools deliberately and systematically.

Malala Yousufzai, a 15-year-old in Pakistan, was shot by the Taliban for promoting girls' education. Her story is a harsh reminder of how difficult it is for women in certain regions of the world to access what we consider a basic human right.

Research shows that when you educate a girl, it brings greater and wider long-term benefits than when you educate a boy. An educated girl becomes a woman, and if she then becomes a mother, she passes what she has learned to her children, including the value of education itself. Her children are more likely to be educated, and more likely to be vaccinated. An educated woman is more likely to bring prosperity to her neighborhood so education is common sense, as well as good for economic development.

The current UN Millennium Development Goals emphasize primary education for girls, and that is important. But as important as this foundation is, a country's economy and its development require the effective leaders and a skilled workforce that only higher education can cultivate. How can a country prosper if half its population is denied the opportunity for higher education?

That is one mission of the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh, of which I am proud to serve as Chancellor. Though still a new university, the AUW currently has 541 students from 12 nations. The university promotes multicultural learning and engagement, to open hearts and minds, and enhance understanding of other cultures. Whether Muslim or Christian, Hindu or Buddhist, Tamil or Sinhalese, the students live and study together. They bring different perspectives to their coursework, enriching discussions and debates.

As a means of achieving long-term impact, the AUW focuses on recruiting students who are the first in their family to go to university. The majority of students are in this situation, and as the first girl in my family to follow this path, I can attest to the power of this "cascade effect" and the sense of responsibility it instils in successive generations.

The university has challenges: Its campus is still a construction site and it needs more funding, notably for scholarships. Some students cannot talk about their studies when they go home for fear of triggering violent attacks on themselves or their families. Others assume they will never marry because their culture considers an educated woman to be a danger rather than an asset.

Despite these struggles -- or perhaps because of them -- AUW students aspire to, and are already accomplishing, great things: Tamil and Sinhalese students from Sri Lanka have joined together to take on reconciliation projects in parts of their country afflicted by violence; one student has started her own business; another initiated and leads a nationwide youth leadership program in Bangladesh; still others work together to build libraries in underserved communities.

Importantly, the AUW is literally in the region. When Asian students go to universities in the West, they often don't come back, so their home country doesn't benefit from their education. AUW was established in Bangladesh -- with a special charter to guarantee its independence -- precisely to counter this. The students of AUW are educated in a developing country, aware of the needs of ordinary people and the power of knowledge to address them. These women long to transform their own communities. AUW gives them the tools to do just that.

The university provides a world-class education. Its students have benefited from exchange programs with Stanford University and other prestigious institutions. It is "elite" in the sense of aiming to offer the best education possible to the best minds in the region.

The commencement ceremony for the first graduating class of 138 students will take place this spring. Some seniors want to work in health care, politics, social work, conflict resolution, education, or environmental causes. Some want to go into banking or start their own business. Some want to continue their studies. All see their education as a means for effecting positive change around them.

With the New Year upon us, I propose a resolution that would benefit the world: encourage education for women. Vote for it whenever possible, contribute to it if you can. If you do, we may just find ourselves with more peace on Earth and a better world in the future.