Exclusive: The Aga Khan, Women and Development: The Path of Education

"I believe the message of Islam is the dignity with which we must treat women in society...and I think it is correct that education dignifies women," His Highness Karim Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world's Shia Ismaili Muslims, explained to a BBC reporter at the turn of the century. Like his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah, who was once President of the League of Nations, the Aga Khan has been an ardent supporter of educating women in the developing world for decades. Recently celebrating his 73rd birthday, the 49th hereditary Imam and direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad is still tireless in his effort, pragmatic in his approach, and strategic in his vision. As a religious leader, his moral obligation, rooted in the principles of Islam, holds him to both interpret the faith and improve the quality of life within the communities and societies in which his followers live. In his dual role, the Aga Khan is also founder and Chairman of one of the largest private development networks in the world, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), active in over 25 countries and employing over 70,000 people.

In an interview with Dr. Tom Kessinger, head of the Aga Khan Foundation and Deputy Chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, he asserts that "mothers are the primary nurturers of the family, and our experience and data shows that the more education women have the more successfully they play that role." Furthermore, he notes, "the daughter of a literate mother is more likely to finish school than the daughter of an illiterate mother." Education, therefore, has been a strong pillar of the Aga Khan's development efforts around the world. By targeting critical professions that tend to be highly populated amongst women such as nursing, midwifery, and pre-collegiate education, AKDN's strategic investment in the education of women also results in the delivery of essential public goods.

In Pakistan, the Aga Khan University's School of Nursing (AKU-SON), one of the many schools of AKU, has redefined the occupation's entry-level qualification. Building on the British-style diploma, AKU-SON has professionalized the field of nursing by offering undergraduate and graduate training. Moreover, establishing a leading institute of academic excellence nearly 30 years ago has raised the status of the profession in both remuneration and respect, and as a result, steadily increased the status of women. Calculated, long-term investments that tackle multiple issues at once through, for example, the path of education, distinguish AKDN from many other development agencies.

Another example of matching the key needs of women to the most urgent needs of a population focuses on AKDN's strategic involvement in the Badakshan province of northeast Afghanistan. Attempting to address one of the worst rates of maternal mortality in the world, AKDN has developed an initiative for young women--recruited by their villages--to attend midwifery training for 18 months. These and countless other ambitions realized by His Highness are progressively uplifting the status of women and providing them with access to social, economic and political opportunities otherwise unavailable in developing societies.

"The AKDN has integrated initiatives in each of these professions [nursing, midwifery, and pre-collegiate education], and with clear direction by His Highness, the focus is to not only build competence in these fields through teaching, but to also build confidence within the trainees. While competence is important, it is confidence that allows one to undertake a larger leadership role in these settings," continued Dr. Kessinger.

In a fundamental shift of consciousness within the international development framework, women and girls are finally viewed as propellers of progress, rather than as impediments to growth. And while firmly placed on today's global agenda of development, and fully integrated into world fora such as the Clinton Global Initiative and the World Economic Forum, the value of investing in the education of women and girls is far from a novel consideration: in 1945, the Aga Khan's grandfather stated that "Personally, if I had two children, and one was a boy and the other was a girl, and if I could afford to only educate one, I would have no hesitation in giving the higher education to the girl." As women place a much stronger emphasis on educating their children--boys and girls--than men do, and invest their income accordingly, it is no longer a secret that to educate a woman is to educate a nation.

Today, the AKDN continues to reflect this measured approach in all its development efforts around the world, and recognizes women and girls' education as a vital component to building respectful, equal and stable societies. As development agencies integrate their efforts to reduce the massive inequalities plaguing women and girls worldwide -- an undeniable moral disaster of our time -- we must never forget the value of human dignity, and the power of education to dignify.

For more articles by Rahim Kanani, click here.