As the first person in her family to go to university, Cherie Blair knows all about the transformative power of a good education.

"I wouldn't be anywhere in my life had it not been for the opportunity to study," says the wife of former British prime minister Tony Blair.

Cherie Blair, a leading barrister and Queen's Counsel (QC), was in Hong Kong recently to establish a fundraising foundation and kick-start a global campaign to raise US$100 million for the Asian University for Women (AUW). A long-time champion of women's rights, Blair has been chancellor of the university since 2011 and is one of its most passionate supporters.

The AUW is a unique institution. Located in Chittagong, a bustling seaport and Bangladesh's second city, the university aims to offer a world-class liberal arts education to women from across the region. Its goal is to create a generation of capable and visionary female leaders.

In developing countries, universities are usually the preserve of the economic elite. AUW operates on a radically different model - it's a meritocracy. Its mission is to educate the smartest girls, with the greatest potential, regardless of their families' ability to pay fees. The majority of students are on full scholarships and AUW is currently entirely funded by donations.

The limited access to education women in many Asian countries have, especially at the secondary and tertiary levels, has serious consequences. Two-thirds of the illiterate adults in the world are women. According to a report published by Unesco in 2011, a child whose mother can read is 50 per cent more likely to survive beyond the age of five. Each extra year of a mother's schooling reduces the probability of infant mortality by 5 to 10 per cent.

Conversely, the benefits are amplified when girls are educated.

"Research shows that when you educate a girl, you have a bigger knock-on effect than when you educate a boy, because there's a generational impact," says Blair. "A woman who has, at least, a secondary education is less likely to marry young. She's more likely to regulate her fertility and have fewer children, to get them vaccinated and to understand and follow public health messages. She's also more likely to educate her own children, in turn."

I am with Blair at the Asia Society, in Admiralty, shortly before she participates in a panel discussion in front of a packed hall. She will share the stage with Jack Meyer, co-founder of the university and its largest private donor.

Meyer is a legendary figure in the world of investment. In his former role as chief investment officer of the Rockefeller Foundation, he was invited on field trips to Asia and Africa to observe philanthropic projects in action. He found that the projects - although well-designed - were frequently unsuccessful.

"There's such a long list of problems in the developing world, with all the poverty, violence, hunger and disease," says Meyer. "We found that if you focus on a single issue, eradicating [the tropical disease] schistosomiasis, for example, the project tends to get overwhelmed by all the other problems on the list."

Meyer and his colleagues thought hard about how best to break the vicious cycle of poverty, which is the root cause of many of the world's problems. Eventually they concluded that the silver bullet was women's education.

The impact is unmatched by any other form of development.

"A dollar spent on women's education is the best dollar you can spend in philanthropy," Meyer tells the crowd.

THE ASIAN UNIVERSITY FOR WOMEN is the brainchild of Kamal Ahmad. Born into a family of university professors, Ahmad grew up in Bangladesh before emigrating to the United States at the age of 15. He has combined a career in law with efforts to aid international development.

"We want to attract extraordinarily talented women, often from the most unlikely of settings, and then light a fire in them through education," he says. "Once they're armed with the intellectual resources, the commitment and a network of like-minded individuals, you unleash them into society and they will create a better world."

The university was founded in 2008 with start-up grants from the Goldman Sachs Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others. The current intake comprises 535 students from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Syria and Vietnam.

"There's no other institution we know of, anywhere in the world, which purposefully draws women from all social strata, all religions, all ethnic and linguistic groups, and makes them live and study, side by side," says Ahmad. "The world is becoming increasingly segregated and we see our function as bringing communities together in a way that the system at large is failing to do. The students learn tolerance and they learn to discuss difficult issues."

All courses are taught in English - a pragmatic necessity as it's the only language common to the whole region.

"This is one of our major strengths," says Ahmad, "because English is the primary international language."

How does he find the bright stars of tomorrow?

"Different approaches work in different countries," says Ahmad. "In Cambodia, we have found it quite effective to put brochures in rural grocery stores. In Bangladesh, we partner with the Grameen Bank [the Nobel Prize-winning microfinance organisation, which has more than eight million female members], to find good candidates."

The admissions process combines academic tests and interviews. Candidates are assessed for three specific personal attributes. The first is courage; stories of bravery usually spring from the domestic domain.

"One girl told me that her little sister had been extremely sick with malaria. She carried her sister, on her back, to a hospital many kilometres away and forced her way to the front of the queue. The doctor told her that if she hadn't done this her sister would have died," says Ahmad. "Other candidates have related how they studied clandestinely during the Taliban era. That's the kind of spirit we're looking for, because we're trying to identify women with leadership qualities."

The second characteristic is a strong sense of moral outrage.

"We present different scenarios of injustice and observe how they react," says Ahmad.

The third is a sense of empathy.

"We try to judge how the woes of other people will provoke them to take action."

Ahmad says experience has shown him that the most significant predictor of success is something that's hard to judge with standard tests: motivation.

"If you find somebody who's motivated - who cannot stop thinking about what she wants to do - then she will succeed."

The university has launched an initiative to source students from Bangladesh's garment factories.

"We're administering tests in factories every Friday [a day off in Bangladesh]," says Ahmad. "We have to persuade the factory owners to continue to pay the girls' wages while they go to university because, even if we provide a full scholarship, their families won't let them go if it means losing the income."

Rubana Huq was the first to sign up to the scheme. She's the managing director of the Mohammadi Group, which employs 7,000 women across eight factories. The average salary for her employees is 9,750 Bangladeshi taka (HK$950) a month.

"We're supporting five women in 2016 and plan to support three to five every year after that," she says. "I think it's going to be brilliant. It was interesting to discover that the candidates still had the power to dream - that life in the factory hadn't deadened them. If they come out of this programme with confidence and courage, they will be setting an example for the rest of the three million women working in the garment industry."

Most AUW students complete a one-year course, called Access Academy, to bring them up to speed in English, maths and computing skills, before they embark on the university curriculum. An additional one-year "academic boot camp" is being devised for the garment factory workers, who are unlikely to speak any English at all.

"I don't want English to be a barrier," says Ahmad. "We want girls with the ability to think creatively, problem solve and who have that spark. English we can teach."

I ask why he has chosen to focus on tertiary education when many girls don't make it to secondary school and not everyone has access to the primary level.

Ahmad refers to the second item on the list of United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which is to achieve universal primary education.

"I think one of the worst aspects of development policy in the past has been to neglect the importance of secondary and higher education. There's much less incentive for parents to send their daughters to school if they leave with no opportunities beyond working on the family farm. There's a risk that for the next round, no one will show up because the parents will think, 'Why waste those five years?'

"Education has to give hope, it has to create new opportunities, and that cannot be done with primary education alone. How can a country possibly develop without educated people? Bangladesh has a serious issue with arsenic contamination of the water - will the primary-school graduates solve this problem? When we want to negotiate a trade treaty, who will do that?

"I do not underestimate the importance of primary education, but I think this exclusive focus on it has done a huge disservice."

Blair agrees: "Most of the leaders today, in business, in politics, in NGOs, in the voluntary sector, are people who have had a university education." She also points to the importance of strong female role models. "Educating girls inspires the next generation to think, 'If she can do it - if she can become an engineer or a lawyer or a politician - then so can I.'"

An additional benefit of secondary and tertiary education is that it reduces the possibility of girls becoming child brides. Bangladesh has the fourth highest rate of child marriage in the world. A study carried out by Unicef in 2011 found that of Bangladeshi women aged between 20 and 24, 65 per cent had married before the age of 18, and 29 per cent before the age of 15.

"When extremely young girls marry and have children, it messes up their lives and the lives of the next generation," says Ahmad, whose grandmother married at the age of 13. He wants to make AUW a focal point for discussion and advocacy. "As our university attains prominence as a centre of female leadership, the messages coming out about child marriage will be viewed with legitimacy."

AUW's board has mounted the new fundraising campaign because it is aiming to double the number of students and build a permanent campus. Since its inception, the university has been housed in converted apartment blocks. It has been granted a 55-hectare plot by the Bangladeshi government on the outskirts of Chittagong. The site has been prepared - the ground levelled, the infrastructure for water, gas and electricity installed - using US$5 million contributed by an anonymous Hong Kong donor, and the campus has been designed by renowned Israeli-American architect Moshe Safdie.

Meyer once managed Harvard University's endowment fund. Under his leadership, it grew sixfold, leaving Harvard in possession of a staggering US$26 billion. Does he have the Midas touch, and can he work his financial magic for AUW?

"Those were the glory days for hedge funds," he says, ruefully. "It's much, much harder now."

He explains that an enlarged student body would benefit from economies of scale, lowering the cost of educating each student (currently US$15,000 per year). Purpose-built facilities would improve the quality of the education offered and attract fee-paying students. He also hopes to create an endowment, so the university can partially sustain itself and won't be completely dependent on donations.

Meyer says it has been tough raising the funds to match the lofty ambitions. In 2011, a flood of negative publicity damaged AUW's reputation, when Ahmad clashed with international staff and disagreements broke out among the board. Three vice-chancellors were either fired or resigned in quick succession. Ahmad temporarily filled the role himself, despite having no experience of running an academic institution.

Ahmad assures me that the teething pains have been resolved and the university is back on track.

An ongoing challenge is to attract and retain first-rate faculty members. AUW staff tend to be either recently qualified or heading towards retirement. For those who are mid-career, or raising a family, a move to Chittagong is not a particularly appealing prospect. One solution has been to bring in professors from top international universities, including Harvard and Yale, to teach courses during their summer holidays.

Another vital ingredient for a world-class education is freedom of speech. Ahmad says the current Bangladeshi prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, is fully supportive of AUW's values. When the university was established, a charter that guaranteed it academic and institutional autonomy, as well as the principle of non-discrimination, was enshrined in a parliamentary act. The act provides some security - if there is a change in political leadership, a majority vote in parliament would be required to overturn it.

However, free expression is under attack from other quarters. Since the start of the year, four secular bloggers in Bangladesh have been hacked to death by Islamic fundamentalists wielding machetes. This worries Ahmad.

"It's indicative of a deterioration of the law and justice situation. If there's a veil of threat over intellectual freedom, because people have been murdered in broad daylight, what do you do?"

"We can't lay down and die in the face of [this extremism]," says Blair. She puts forward an explanation for the fundamentalist opposition to female education: "It's about control. If you want to control a society and maintain a way of life that does not respect individual human rights, then don't educate your girls. Keep people in ignorance. Because educated people are much more likely to challenge you."

AUW's supporters believe that as the university grows, it will increase its leverage and bring real and lasting change to all aspects of society in the region.

"We need to achieve a critical mass of graduates in each of the countries we draw students from," says Ahmad, "to make them a force to be reckoned with. Doubling in size will speed up the process and create a powerful alumnae body."

Once the new campus is complete, he hopes to establish a graduate school, to teach professional education.

"We want to inspire our students to imagine how they can change the world, with a poet's vision. And we want to combine that vision with an engineer's ability to get things done. Because the people who can do both are the people the world really needs."

 

All-female universities booming in Asia and the Middle East

All-female universities are booming in Asia and the Middle East, contrasting with a downward trend in Western countries.

Over the past 50 years, the number of women-only universities has plummeted from 230 to 45 in the United States while in Britain only four - three of which are Cambridge colleges - remain.

"This decline is mainly due to increased opportunities at formerly all-men's elite universities, but also because co-education is by far the dominant mode of primary and secondary school education," says Kristen Renn, professor of education at Michigan State University and author of the book Women's Colleges and Universities in a Global Context. "In spite of the demonstrated benefits to girls and women of attending single-sex school or college, co-education has become so much the norm that it is countercultural to consider another option."

By contrast, single-sex institutions are proliferating in countries where women are not treated as equals and families are unwilling to allow their daughters to attend mixed colleges, fearing for both their safety and reputation.

India boasts more than 2,500 women-only colleges, and the government has plans to open another 800. Competition for places at the prestigious Lady Shri Ram College for Women, in New Delhi, is so fierce that fewer than 1 per cent of applicants are successful, an admission rate five times more selective than at US universities Harvard and Yale.

The largest women's university in the world, the Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, has more than 60,000 students.

"It may seem paradoxical," says Renn, "but women-only universities put their alumnae in the position to change the societies that once restricted their choices. That is the trajectory of single-sex education across history and around the world."

 

How the Asian University for Women is changing lives

Marvah Shakib is an Afghan. She has a degree in Asian Studies from AUW and works for the Ministry of Counter Narcotics in Afghanistan.

"I grew up in Herat. When the Taliban took power, my father fled to Russia - he had worked for the government and he would have been killed. He tried to take us with him but he passed away in Russia before we could leave. I was six years old.

"There was no schooling for girls and women were not allowed to work. My mother had been a teacher so she set up a secret school for girls in our home. We had sewing machines - if the inspectors came, we pretended we were learning to be tailors.

"The Taliban left in 2001 so I was able to attend secondary school. Our school had no library and no classrooms - we studied in tents for the first two years. When I graduated, only 15 girls out of 60 were not already married.

"I always dreamed of doing something good for my country, especially for women. I feel terrible seeing young girls forced to marry and being violated, sometimes by their own relatives. I wanted to go to university and learn English. I won a place at AUW but my family refused to let me go. They said I was crazy and that I would destroy the family's honour. Eventually, I persuaded my elder uncle to support me, so I was able to enrol.

"Now my family feel proud of me. My experience has had a positive impact on my community - more girls attend school now. Lots of people ask me for advice about education.

"In my job, as technical coordinator, I have managed projects to destroy opium fields, worked to boost the success rates of drug treatment clinics and run initiatives to support the wives of men who are addicted to drugs and who become violent. I'm also setting up an independent project, Hamrah, which aims to reduce the rate of relapse among recovered addicts and to help them get jobs."

Endear Van is Cambodian. She studied PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) at AUW and graduated in 2013.

"I'm the youngest of four children. I was born in the countryside but my parents moved to Phnom Penh, to give us better opportunities. Only the two younger children went to secondary school - my older brother and sister had to work to help pay our school fees.

"On finishing 12th grade I won two scholarships to study at universities in Cambodia. Then I heard about AUW and its mission to create women leaders, and this triggered a strong feeling in me, so I applied to go there instead. It was really difficult for the first six months because I couldn't understand English, and the girls from other countries were very different to me, culturally. After I settled in, I had a fantastic experience.

"I currently run a translation company in Phnom Penh, helping the staff at international NGOs who cannot speak our language. I also work for some government departments, which gives me insight into their policymaking.

"I want to be more than just a normal girl who grows up and gets married and has a baby. I dream of becoming a political leader. Some people would laugh at me if they knew, but I really want to have a go. I'm still too young and I don't have the financial support yet - I need to build myself up so I can convince people to believe in me."

Christina Tamang is Nepali and is studying biological sciences at AUW.

"When I was very young my family moved from our small mountain village to Kathmandu, seeking a better life. My father worked for the military and he encouraged me to attend school. My mother did odd jobs, working as a day labourer, to help pay the fees. She also made handicrafts from discarded plastic, chocolate and instant noodle wrappers, and crisp packets. At the weekends, I would help by collecting materials from piles of garbage. I really admire my parents for what they did.

"I thrived at primary school and won a scholarship to attend one of the best secondary schools in Nepal. Then I applied to AUW and got accepted.

"At AUW, every day is a new experience. I've learned so much about different cultures and perspectives and ideologies. I've sharpened my talents and broadened my intellectual horizons. I have learned to accept myself and no longer feel insecure about my background; that I come from a poor country and from an ethnic minority within that society. Instead I stand tall and confident and I feel proud of my personal development - I have become a better person.

"As well as my academic studies, I love the extracurricular activities - I've starred in several theatre productions, I've learned to play the guitar, I'm a member of the varsity basketball team and I've got a blue belt in karate. This year I became vice-president of the student government.

"I would like to study medicine when I graduate and help improve the living conditions for people in Nepal. AUW has taught me to live a meaningful life in whatever profession I follow."