11 December 2018

Outreach as a tool to empower women in repressed societies


Ajuna Azad, a bioinformatician employed at DanStem who shares her time between the Grapin-Botton and Brickman groups has recently initiated an exceptional outreach event at her former high school, on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.  

Story by PhD students :Carla Goncalves, Anna Maria Drozd and Niels Alvaro Menezes

Imagine that you would like to study and pursue your dream career, but your parents can afford to either send you to a university or organize a wedding, and are insisting on the latter. This is the reality for many girls in some parts of the world. We talked to one of DanStem’s scientist to find out more about what we can do to aid young women that find themselves in that difficult situation.

Ajuna Azad is a bioinformatician employed at DanStem, who shares her time between the Grapin-Botton and Brickman groups. She had recently initiated an exceptional outreach event at her former high school. Ajuna is originally from Kerala, and did her schooling in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi. She then obtained a Master’s degree in Bioinformatics from the University of Nottingham in the UK.

Ajuna can be considered a pioneer in her community - she is one of the first people from her locality to receive higher education abroad. While students in the Western world have more social and financial support in their pursuit of higher education, young adults from her region who want to continue their education beyond high school have to face many challenges. This is especially true for girls, who are expected to marry at a young age, soon after getting a high school diploma. Ajuna herself experienced obstacles when she decided to follow a less traditional path - “My parents and brother have always supported me from the start. However, they had to hear a lot of criticism from neighbours and relatives when they spread the news of my decision to move abroad. I have heard my own family members scare them, saying, ‘she is not going to return to you both, she would just live there in a new life and lose all our cultural values’.”

This autumn, Ajuna returned to her former school to speak to over one hundred students about stem cell research, but more importantly, about pursuing higher education, studying abroad, and creating your own destiny. We interviewed Ajuna to find out more about her outreach initiative in her old school.

What inspired you to choose this school?

It is my alma mater, I did the final 2 years of my schooling there. I know how most of these students perceive the world, I was once in their shoes. Their perception of reality is distorted by their own expectations, coupled with that of their families and relatives. I wish to change this trend, and there is no better starting point than the school where it all began for me.

What goal did you have in mind for the visit?

My aim was to encourage all students and tell them about the latest advancements in science. However for me, it was also important to empower girls from societies where there is still high discrimination based on gender. They need to get equal rights and opportunities in life. I would interact with more students to convey that if they are strong and believe in themselves, there will always be a way to achieve their goals. I have struggled throughout my journey and still fight this indifference every day of my life in various aspects. On seeing me and hearing about what I achieved, they could easily relate to me, and the students were really happy to know that “it is not impossible if we try hard”.

How was your presence viewed by the students? Was there a lot of interest?

They were happy to hear feedback and advice from a former student. They said it was easy to relate to, rather than hearing from random people. It was easier for them to believe, and to see in person, that it is possible to be successful starting from where they are now. That is all I wanted – to make them realise they can achieve anything they desire in life!

Do you think you inspired young women to focus on their career?

Yes, I do think I have inspired them to dream bigger than they did. Few girls personally came and asked me, “how can I convince my parents to allow me to learn beyond high school? How can Islamic women survive in fast and modern societies? How does the western world view Muslim women?”. Most members of my community have a very narrow view of societies outside their own neighbourhood, coming from a conservative Islamic background. Our community also gives us the wrong impression about the ‘outside world’, and how a person will change upon going abroad. So, it is important that people like me go and talk to them and assure them that “it is okay”.

Additionally, parents do not spend on the education of their daughters, as a lot of money is needed as payment for ‘dowry’ during marriage. But I told the girls, “­­tell your parents to spend that money on your education, you would then have a successful career, earn back the money spent, and later support your parents and fund your wedding”. Money is definitely a big deciding and limiting factor in our community. It is a major reason why people prefer not to move outside their community, as living in Europe is expensive and the tuition fees are exorbitant. I also told them about various options such as ‘e-learning’ and ‘distance education’ programs from around the world.

What did you gain from the experience?

I had a realization of the path took to be where I am today. I feel very grateful to all those who supported me and stood against societal pressure, encouraging me to be an independent and successful woman in life.

Do you think that this type of activities can make a difference, particularly in countries where women are not encouraged to pursue their own career?

Yes! For sure! We need to reach out and ensure them that they have the opportunity to follow their dreams; that they need not be scared of dreaming big. In my community, boys and girls get equal rights in education till they finish high school (except in sports, where only boys play actual sports while girls play some indoor games). Many a times, even young girls who achieve milestones in academics do not have the societal and financial support to pursue further education. Many families start looking for arranged marriage options for girls when they are 17. In rare cases, girls get to pursue postgraduation before getting married. Many girls in high school have the following attitude: “why should I even learn? I will have to go to my husband’s house and be a housewife from next year.”

So, it is important that successful women talk to them, and give them more confidence to dream towards a better future. Some parents want to support their daughters, but they face peer pressure from within their society. Such outreach is that extra push that will convince people that it is absolutely fine to pursue their career goals!