Asia Society Women’s Leadership Series Welcomes Royalty: Cherie Blair
The Women’s Leadership Series (WLS) at the Asia Society Texas Center celebrates influential, diverse women making a substantive impact in both the business and culture arenas, locally and globally. On March 29, 2017 a swell crowd gathered at the Center to welcome and listen to Mrs. Cherie Blair the wife of former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. These ladies and gentlemen were bustling with positivity and desire to make a difference, sharing ideas, and gaining knowledge with Mrs. Blair during the reception.
The concepts of education reform and academic leadership vary across different cultures and parts of the world. Today, nearly 70 million children across the globe cannot get a basic education, which hampers progress toward gender equality. Of primary school-aged children, there are 31 million girls not attending school, and 17 million of these girls will probably never attend school in their lifetimes. Experts suggest that educating a girl can break cycles of poverty in just one generation, as educated girls marry later, have fewer children, earn higher wages, and support healthier and more prosperous families. Underscoring the grave nature of the issue, statistics suggest children born to a mother who can read and write are 50 percent more likely to survive past the age of 5 years old.
The barriers to educating women are many, including habitation in conflict-ridden countries, entrenched beliefs preventing women from pursuing education, and stunted advances in the status of women in many parts of rural Asia despite the pace of regional development. The evening was a panel discussion with Cherie Blair and other distinguished women in the field of education for a wide-ranging discussion on the importance of women’s education—how it empowers individuals, improves lives, advances societies, and changes the world. Dr. Dina Alsowayel is Associate Director of Women’s Studies at the University of Houston in Texas and Dr. Zahra Jamal is Associate Director at Rice University’s Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance. Moderating the panel our very own Andrea White.
Cherie Blair started the program sharing that March 29 marked her 33rd wedding anniversary with her husband Tony Blair, jumping straight to the very serious issue that 400 million women around the world are illiterate which meant child marriage, early pregnancy, a vicious cycle of poverty and important voices being unheard. “The world economy is changing rapidly and so is technology, therefore it is time for us to think outside the box,” shares Mrs. Blair. She is a leading international lawyer, committed campaigner for women’s rights, and believes that educating women can solve many problems. Cherie Blair is the Chancellor of the Asian University for Women (AUW), located in Chittagong, Bangladesh. She also serves as a member of AUW’s Council of Patrons which is chaired by the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Since the University opened in 2008, Mrs. Blair has been actively involved in the development of AUW and has campaigned globally on behalf of the University in places such as Qatar, Hong Kong, Japan, Kuwait, and the United States.
“My journey from Liverpool to be married to the Prime Minister was incredible, and it was for my mother and grandmother’s passion to educate me, for which I will always be grateful,” she shares. Mrs. Blair was the first member of her family to go to university. She studied law at the London School of Economics, where she graduated with a First Class Degree. In 1995, she became a Queen’s Counsel, and in 2011 she founded Omnia Strategy LLP, a boutique international law firm through which she advises and provides strategic counsel to multinational businesses, governments, and private individuals. She also continues to practice independently as a barrister. “Often in developing countries women are considered to be at the bottom. So now what can we do? Being the chancellor with AUW we try to help learn the various religious backgrounds the students come from, be positive and empower the women with education, so that they want to go back and improve and help other young girls,” explained Mrs. Blair. She also shared various success stories of young students graduating from the university, going back to their countries and standing up for their rights and others.
Originally from Cambodia, Saren Keang a graduate from the University was amongst the audience to share her success story. “I grew up in a village in a working class with much poverty, but I was good in studies and everyday I would watch injustice towards women. My 11 year old friend was raped, my neighbor would get drunk and beat his wife. All this made me very angry and I wanted to do something and so I turned my anger towards a positive direction and studied harder because I knew only with education, can I change my life and for others,” says Saren. “Culture can change and should change. It is not good to hold on to age old rituals and values that are designed to discriminate and create inequality,” she added. The evening ended with Asia Society Texas Center Executive Director, Bonna Kol (who is also from Cambodia) greeting her in their regional language, open hearted and reassuring, that the hardship for women there is real but what matters is we are all equal, which left the audience with teary eyes.