Education International
Education International

Interview with Jan Eastman: A teacher unionist dedicated to gender equality

published 25 March 2011 updated 25 March 2011

Jan Eastman is EI’s Deputy General Secretary with responsibility for human, trade union and equality rights. She is former chairperson of EI’s Status of Women Committee. Jan is a native of Tasmania. She taught English and Social Studies in Canada before specialising in educating students with learning disabilities. In this interview Jan answers questions about the challenges and opportunities that will be explored at EI’s First World Women’s Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, from 20-23 January, 2011.

Are we on track to achieve Millennium Development Goal 3 (gender equality)?

We can see progress on gender equality but it is uneven across the globe. Some countries are even regressing. If you put together internationally comparable data in the fields of education, economic activity and political empowerment, as done by Social Watch, the index shows the gender gap is not narrowing in many countries. Progress is held back by systemic issues of attitude and discrimination. It is insufficient to have a legislative rights framework or to write gender equity into the constitution. For example, despite legislation, no country has achieved real pay equity, even though ILO Convention 100 on equal remuneration has been ratified by almost all every ILO member state. What we need is a considerable increase of political will, investment, and coordinated action. This is especially true now, in times of economic recession, which exacerbates precarious situations even further. We have high hopes for the efficacy of the new agency, UN Women.

Have we seen any progress in the simple access to education around the world for girls?

There has been progress because developing regions are approaching gender parity. Around 96 girls for every 100 boys are in primary education, and 95 girls per 100 boys is in secondary education. That said, far more remains to be done and it is doubtful if the goal of Education for All will be realised by 2015. Girls’ access to education is lowest in Oceania, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southern and Western Asia. A range of barriers keep them out of school, including culture and tradition; safety to and in school, as well as a lack of schools in rural areas, among others. Child labour, for girls often in hidden forms such as domestic labour, as well as situations of conflict and post-conflict are major obstacles. Teachers are vital because it is the quality of education, dependent on the teacher, which determines to a large extent whether parents will send and keep their girls in school.

EI has been integral to making the connection between many conditions of inequality and injustice and the lack of education. Is education the key to alleviating these conditions globally?

EI believes that quality public education has to be the main means of alleviating inequality and injustice. Education itself is a human right, a strong moral imperative, but evidence shows there is no tool for development that is more effective than the education of girls and women. Educated women marry later and have fewer, healthier and better nourished children, who are more likely to go to school and less likely to be child labourers. Educated women are better informed about how to protect themselves from diseases such as HIV, and have better access to quality public services such as healthcare. They earn higher wages and use a big share of their earnings to benefit their families and community. Women who are denied education are likely to perpetuate the vicious cycle of early marriage, infant mortality, poor health, and vulnerability to illness and poverty.

A very visible part of EI in the world community is in the networks. What impact are they having?

Since 2007 regional and sub-regional EI networks have been really deveoped and strengthened. I set a large store by the networks and see one of our roles being to support and encourage them at all levels. We see them as a valuable means of identifying the issues, from the ground up, and being an effective vehicle for implementing policy and making change, working with, and as part of the union’s goals. A key aim of EI's First World Women's Conference is to provide an opportunity for the networks to come together and create a global network focusing on common issues and challenges, planning and acting strategically based on the shared experiences of each network. The networks bring the issues to the union, and together they have the capacity to scale up efforts to change attitudes, make space, advocate strongly for economic and political empowerment, and of course, enable access and participation of girls and women in education and training throughout their lives, for full employment and decent work.

So much seems to depend on who is in the classroom and what is being taught. What matters most?

As a teacher, and for EI, it is fair to say that we need quality education for every child and that means we need many more teachers who are well qualified and supported to provide positive, welcoming and safe learning environments, for girls and boys. Women teacher role-models for girls, at all levels and across curricular offerings, are essential, especially in mathematics, the sciences and technology. We also need more focus on gender sensitivity in teacher education, curricular and classroom materials that celebrate diversity and include a gender perspective. Investing in education must include good teacher education programmes, induction and continuing professional development, as well as fair remuneration and decent working conditions. Building inclusive education systems, schools and programmes is complex and demanding. Commitment and investment must be high but the rewards can be exponential if our children and youth everywhere can learn to live and work together, not only inside the classroom but outside in the community too. To have a new generation where gender equality is a fact of life would be a legacy indeed, and the classroom, the global classroom, might just be the most important place for that to begin.

By Steve Snyder and Leona Hiraoka, NEA

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 36, December 2010.