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Giving women the chance for leadership

Dr Regina Papa, Educationalist and social activist

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.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The destruction of Gaza

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times