Mursal Hamraz finished secondary school in her native Afghanistan with just one option to further her education — join a public university to study fine arts, which was not of interest to her. Six months later, her father told her of a new private university in Bangladesh that would provide her with a full scholarship.
Hamraz attended the Asian University for Women in the port city of Chittagong, which opened in 2008. Today, its 500-strong student cohort comes from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Burma, Pakistan, Palestine, Syria and eight other countries where women face limited and often restricted opportunities.
All-female higher education worldwide has come to a divide: in the West, where women have access to co-educational institutions – and, among student body, outnumber men at many of them – women-only universities are closing and enrolment is largely declining. In many developing countries, new all-female campuses are opening and expanding, and enrolment is soaring in Asia.
The growth of all-women institutions of higher learning in many countries may have to do with the marginalization, discrimination and isolation that many women face in their own countries. Many students who choose these institutions usually come from societies which do not place importance on higher education for girls. Or they come from families that feel their girls would be safer attending an all-women institution.
There is no denying that all-women colleges provide these women with a toehold to expand their intellectual abilities in a liberating and democratic environment. Hopefully, these women would eventually become a force for social change in their own countries. But some women-only universities still emphasize on traditional 'female careers' such as teaching, social work and nursing, perpetuating rather than reducing inequality.
Many women who graduate from these universities are often limited to career choices for which they may have no inclination. The under-utilization of women’s potential results in enormous wastage of human resources that governments in many developing countries can ill-afford. Moreover, many women continue to be discriminated against in the workplace; they are often less likely to be hired and promoted, and in many cases, earn less than men for the same jobs.
An educated workforce with skills to meet market demands is becoming increasingly imperative to fuel and sustain economic development in any country. With women forming half, if not more, of the workforce in many developing countries, governments there are realizing, even if belatedly, that denying tertiary education to women, under-utilizing their potential, or discriminating against them, could turn out to be a snafus that derails their economic growth and development.