New Director of Center for Women’s Global Leadership Brings Economic Perspective to Human Rights Work

New Director of Center for Women’s Global Leadership Brings Economic Perspective to Human Rights Work

Radhika Balakrishnan
Radhika Balakrishnan
Radhika Balakrishnan doesn’t remember when women’s rights were not at the top of her agenda.  “My mother called me a woman’s libber when I was a young girl,” says the Indian-born economist and scholar, who grew up to advocate for human rights on a worldwide scale.

In September, Balakrishnan became executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), poised to lead the internationally recognized Rutgers organization into its third decade. She took over for founding director and current senior scholar Charlotte Bunch, who molded CWGL into a force in research, education, and advocacy for women’s and human rights.

The move marks a return to the Banks for Balakrishnan, who started work on her doctorate in economics at Rutgers in 1981 – at first, the only woman in her doctoral program class. For the last dozen years, she taught economics and international studies at Marymount Manhattan College in New York.

For almost 30 years, Balakrishnan has worked with activists and academics nationally and internationally, promoting gender equality and economic justice. She served as a program officer in the Asia Regional Program of the Ford Foundation. She is chair of the Board of the U.S. Human Rights Network and treasurer of the Board of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Among the images that haunt her is the memory of Elmina Castle in Ghana, which she visited about 10 years ago as part of an external review of conditions in third-world Africa. There, standing at the trading post where slaves were held before being shipped abroad, she had a glimpse into history that both horrified and galvanized her.

“The women were often brought into the sunlight once a day so they could be picked out to be raped by the slave owners and sent back into the dungeons,” Balakrishnan recalled. “Listening to their story, and being in the place where it actually happened, convinced me that nothing like that should ever happen again.”

Under her guidance, she says, CWGL will engage in human rights work from a feminist and economic perspective, building on and expanding the achievements of previous leadership.

“I’ve known the work of CWGL for 20 years – I was actually a graduate student at Rutgers when Charlotte began here,” says Balakrishnan, who is also a professor in the Rutgers Department of Women’s and Gender Studies. “One of its biggest accomplishments was bringing women’s rights into the mainstream of the human rights movement.”

In 1991 the CWGL, located on the Douglass Campus, gathered 23 representatives from every region of the world. From their pioneering efforts emerged the worldwide campaign known as the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, observed annually from November 25 to December 10. Since that day, more than 2,000 organizations in 150 countries have instituted events and/or programs marking the two-week period.

Balakrishnan has spent much of her career examining the intersection of economics and women’s rights. “My current project is based on applying human rights norms to evaluate and construct macroeconomic policy in the United States and Mexico,” she wrote in a message to new colleagues and friends of CWGL when she began in September.

In “A Human Response to the Economic Crisis in the United States,” a paper prepared for a meeting at the United Nations focused on the global economic crisis, Balakrishnan and co-authors James Heintz and Stephanie Seguino argue that the current fiscal meltdown did not happen spontaneously, but was manufactured by government officials who value the interests of big business over the needs of their citizenry.

Poor women in particular got the short end of that regulatory stick, the scholars write in their paper, which they hope will become part of the United Nations examination of the U.S.’s human rights review process.
Balakrishnan is delighted by the growth of women’s programs on Rutgers’ campuses but discouraged overall by what she sees as a lack of progress in such areas as health care, reproductive rights, and economic power.

“Honestly, I felt we would be further along than we are now,” she says, pointing specifically to controversy over abortion coverage driving the national health reform debate. “We shouldn’t be having this fight. Why should one part of women’s health care not be an essential, integral part of the health bill?”

The new executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership is convinced her organization has a vital role to play in changing all that.

“This seems like a great place to continue and expand the work I was doing before I came here,” Balakrishnan says. “This is a very special place in the world – there aren’t many places like it anywhere.”