When Professor Radhika Balakrishnan took over from Charlotte Bunch as Executive Director of the Centre for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University, USA, in September last year, she was stepping into shoes that were really big.
Bunch, who was the Centre's founder and director for 20 years, has an international reputation as a leading civil rights activist, is a pioneer in the women's and human rights movements, and continues to be a powerful voice in drawing worldwide attention to the need for including gender in human rights discourses. She had organised the first international women's liberation conference in Mexico in 1968, helped develop women's studies curricula, served as consultant for global conferences during the UN Decade for Women (1975-85), got inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame, and received the prestigious Eleanor Roosevelt prize for human rights work from President Clinton.
By any standards, this is an enviable track record to live up to. However, in just 12 months since taking over from Bunch, Balakrishnan has not only established her credentials with élan, as the first woman of Asian origin to lead the Centre, she has also helped advance the global feminist and human rights agendas further along the road to equity.
Born in Ooty in south India, Balakrishnan spent her childhood years in Tamil Nadu before moving to the US at the age of 13, when her engineer father went overseas on a work assignment. By the time she completed high school she knew she was good at mathematics, and subsequently decided to enroll for a course in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she found herself to be one of just three girl students in a class of 250. This was in the 1970s, when the feminist movement was still in its infancy, and even her academic advisor told her that women "didn't belong in engineering". "But I am a fighter," Balakrishnan says with a chuckle, as she recalls how she persisted and became actively involved in the women's movement that was gaining momentum. Moving from Ooty to an inner city environment in Chicago was also an experience that exposed her to the reality of class and colour divides, and widened her social awareness even as a student.
She has an interesting explanation to offer on how she combined her academic-scientific interests with her penchant for activism: "At the university, the science blocks were all in a row on one side of the campus street, while the social science departments were in a row on the opposite side, and I realised one day that I was shunting between the two, attending classes on one side and crossing over for social activism on the other side. Finally, with encouragement from an African-American professor, I decided to attend a lecture in economics, liked it, and switched to economics, instead of constantly fighting for my rights in engineering." What was a loss for engineering became a gain for economics.
She went on to get a Master's degree and then a Ph.D. in economics. The field work for her research study - on 'Access to property and its relation to the sex ratio in India' - was done in Kerala. Appointment as a professor of economics at Rutgers University followed, and since then she has been a prominent speaker at several international conferences of economists.
Her appointment as Executive Director of the Centre for Women's Global Leadership came as an exciting challenge, and she has drawn up an agenda that focuses on economic and social rights in determining macro-economic policy, with health and education as priority areas. The Centre develops, as its name suggests, training modules for activists and has established itself as a leader in advancing feminist perspectives in policy making at the national and international levels. It also serves as a resource centre and publishes studies pertaining to the promotion of women in leadership. Balakrishnan now also chairs the Board of the U.S. Human Rights Network.
Violence against women, one of the areas that the Centre for Women's Leadership works on, has varied manifestations worldwide, including war crimes, rape, honour killings, female foeticide, and battering. Balakrishnan's transnational background comes in particularly useful here, as she looks at militarism not merely as war and its effects on women, but also in terms of what terrorism and its tensions do to women's lives. "In the mountainous northern parts of the Indo-Pak region, for example, what do fundamentalist terrorism and insurgency do to women's lives? That's also a dimension of violence and militarism that affects women differently from men," she points out.
She also co-authored a paper last year, on how the financial meltdown and the recession that followed, were in fact violations of human rights by the U.S. government because the administration failed to protect the economic interests of those whose savings got wiped out by the crisis. This massive economic downturn that has had worldwide ramifications could have been avoided, she argues, if the federal government had put in place sufficient regulations on financial institutions. The paper received much attention from both academics and policy makers, and she followed this up recently with a hard-hitting op-ed comment on Huffingtonpost.com when the US Supreme Court ruled that corporate contributions to political elections cannot be restricted, because that would amount to an infringement of the corporations' right to freedom in making financial disbursements. "This [ruling] is dangerous," she says, pointing out that corporate contributions can significantly advance their own agendas for profit, rather than prioritise the greatest common good. Calling the apex court's ruling as a "step backwards for the country" she has pointed out that if human rights are to stand a chance against corporate clout, this decision must be overturned.
Balakrishnan is courageous: She says what she thinks is right, and translates it into an agenda for the promotion of human rights and social equity by calling for structural changes. Her father, she recalls, made no distinction between his daughter and two sons, and that liberal upbringing has helped shape her perspectives on the importance of gender equity and the need for nurturing leadership in women.
The New York-based economist keeps a very hectic schedule. She was in Argentina last month for a conference of the International Association for Feminist Economics, and was a plenary speaker at an international symposium held earlier at the Harvard Law School. Her precious spare time is reserved for some refreshing yoga and she also indulges in her jewellery-making hobby, using the beads that she collects from her global travels. And, her busy professional schedule permitting, she does try to make a trip to India once a year.
So what is her opinion on the Women's Reservation Bill in India that has been pending for a decade and a half? She endorses it unreservedly. She says, "Reservations are good, and one way of moving towards equity when a section of society gets excluded from democratic participation in decision making, historically and socially, only due to being born female."