When the first undergraduate group begins studying at the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Bangladesh this September, it will be another milestone in the remarkable 40-year career of Dr Regina Papa.
Construction work is about to start on AUW's 100-acre campus outside Chittagong, the country's second city. With support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and building towards a student body of 3,000, it aims to empower underprivileged women in south Asia and equip them for leadership. Combining the liberal arts with professional training in new technology and critical thinking, the programmes are designed to help graduates seize opportunities in government, business and academia that women have often been unable to grasp.
First, however, the students had to be found. Enter Dr Papa, an educationalist and social activist who set up India's first department of women's studies at Alagappa University, in southern India, in 1989. She took on the pivotal task of running AUW's Access Academy (AA), which recruits talented girls from disadvantaged backgrounds and prepares them for tertiary education. To be eligible, the candidates had to be the first in their family to attend university. This entailed dealing with a particularly conservative section of society, and Dr Papa encountered much resistance.
"Many parents in Kerala suspected we were recruiting girls for human trafficking in Bangladesh," she says. It was not just the parents. In a region where there is a widening gap between an educated, westernised elite who send their daughters to study in England or America and the frequently illiterate and reactionary poor, it can be difficult to convince women of their own potential. But Dr Papa secured 1,200 applications, and, in March, the first 130 students from Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka were admitted to the academy's temporary premises in Chittagong.
When the Malaysian health and women's rights activist Marina Mahathir visited in the summer she reported astonishing progress. "I was almost in tears," she wrote after listening to a presentation by Dola, a 20-year-old Bangladeshi woman. "Only four months ago, she arrived at AA from her village speaking very little English. Now here she was, confidently presenting her story to a stranger in near-perfect English and expressing her thoughts with sophistication."
Papa herself knows the difference that this kind of experience can make to life chances. The small village in Tamil Nadu, India, where she was born in 1943 had no access to electricity, running water, or medical and transport facilities. "I have witnessed the sufferings of uneducated women," she says. "Many of my childhood friends didn't go past fifth grade and are helpless victims of dependency in their later lives. My own life bears testimony to the fundamental AUW principle that quality of education brings unbelievable changes."
AUW is the latest in a long list of projects in which Papa has been involved. One scheme trained uneducated girls from remote villages in non-traditional trades (as electricians, or radio and TV technicians). At the same time, her entrepreneurship workshops resulted in women starting more than 100 small enterprises. In another, students taught 1,500 rural women about their legal rights, covering issues including domestic violence, property, rape and child marriage. Following this, Papa established a legal aid centre, locally nicknamed "Mother House", in Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu, offering free legal services to destitute or deserted women. The self-help groups she was involved in starting in her home state now number 250, with 10,000 members. Some women have even gone on to win local elections and become village leaders.
The AUW Access Academy is the logical culmination of this tireless work. "Women's education shouldn't be based on a feeling that women are ignorant and weak and in need of permanent support," she says. Papa has now returned to India to continue her mission to "bring change", leading the women's wing of a new party campaigning to alleviate poverty in Tamil Nadu.
If AUW's expansion continues as planned, a new breed of socially aware, educated young leaders could revolutionise the position and aspirations of women across Asia. Foremost among those to whom they will owe thanks will be Dr Regina Papa.