Who is Dr Barwatha Regina Papa? The UK newspaper New Statesman named her and US politician Bobby Jindal on Sunday in their list of ‘10 People Who Could Change The World’ (its last such list, in 2005, included Barack Obama).
The Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi, could not provide information on the 64-year-old retired academician. But Dr Papa, who set up the Department of Women Studies in 1989 at Alagappa University, Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu, 400 km from Chennai, (the first such department is at Mother Teresa University, Kodaikanal), said it was because of her ongoing ‘bridge course’ at Chittagong, Bangladesh.
The course enables 130 underprivileged South Asian girls, handpicked by Dr Papa to qualify for a new university being set up in Chittagong. Called the Asian University for Women (AUW), it will commence its first graduate programme in September 20009, for which Dr Papa is preparing, at an ‘Access Academy’ in Chittagong, 130 girls from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kampuchea, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The 29 Sri Lankans include 19 Tamils and 10 Sinhalese, possibly the first classroom integration of these ethnic groups in years.
Said Dr Papa, “When I was in Jaffna three months back (with a special permit), the most shocking thing I saw was its exclusive schools for Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslim children with no possibility of inter-mixing at all.”
Dr Papa’s bridge course aims to impart skills in computers, IT, and English in particular, lack of which has caused an “inferiority complex” among talented village girls. The university is funded by the Boston-based ‘AUW Support Foundation’ set up by Kamal Ahmad, a Harvard-educated lawyer of Bangladeshi origin. Other benefactors include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.