In a world of working wonders

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14 November 2018

Education International’s chief Asia-Pacific coordinator, Shashi Balasingh, talks about growing up as a girl in India, the importance of strong unionism and why she’s optimistic about the future.

Shashi Balasingh remembers how hard it was for her to become a university student and teacher in India. Three decades ago, cultural norms didn’t value the education of girls. Her brothers had to help persuade her parents to allow her to pursue graduate and postgraduate studies.

Drawn to teaching, Balasingh completed an education degree several years after marrying. She had to stare down opposition from a society that didn’t approve of daughters-in-law working outside the home. When she became a primary school teacher in 1984, Balasingh relished the opportunity to be her own person and move beyond a solely domestic life.

In 1986, following a trip with other teachers to Nepal for a biennial education unions conference, she started helping her local union with Hindi-English language work.

Her ‘real’ union career began when she was invited to Australia to attend a one-month course at the Trade Union Training Authority in Wodonga, Victoria, thanks to a proviso that two of the five Indian national federation places must go to women.

Despite the challenges of understanding the Australian accent, the long, intensive days were a turning point that gave her confidence and the understanding that unionism mattered.

Gender equality focus

Back home, Balasingh’s new union involvement was tough going. “Women were in the minority in the Delhi state union and they were undermined or treated as subservient.”

She resigned from teaching and embarked on a full-time union career to focus on gender equality. “I have personally experienced the discrimination, the violence, the threats. I can understand the pain, difficulties and challenges women face.”

Balasingh was a regional coordinator at Education International (EI) from 1993 until 2013, when she became the chief Asia-Pacific regional coordinator responsible for five sub-regions including the South Pacific and countries as diverse as India, Nepal, Myanmar, Iraq, Indonesia and the Philippines.

The overall region has 52 per cent of the 263 million children in the world who are out of school, and 46 per cent of the world’s illiterate young people. In many of these countries there are conflicts and persecution, extreme poverty and grave violations of human rights. “The realities are stark,” she says.

EI’s standard for funding public education is 6 per cent of GDP, but many developing countries invest
no more than 2.5 to 3 per cent, she says. Privatisation is undermining public education in countries such
as India and Indonesia, and the use of contract and para-teachers is becoming more common.

Nonetheless, Balasingh is optimistic about the future. As “proof that strong unions can work wonders”, teachers in India now have maternity protection benefits; women’s networks prosper in many regions; and there are quotas for female representation at all union decision-making levels.

Girls’ enrolment in schools has increased, and although retention rates and learning outcomes are
still a challenge, improvements are visible. “Things have changed for millions of daughters who now have better opportunities.”

In many places, unions have become larger and more unified, and therefore stronger. She also cites the role of EI and collective unions in getting education recognised as a United Nations Sustainable Development Goal.

In Balasingh’s own life – “a long journey of constant struggle” – she’s also seen the wheel turn.

“I now see my daughters as successful and independent young women. They are ready to face any challenge.”

By Krista Mogensen

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Winter 2018.