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Lessons From Chilean Students’ Inspiring Movement For Affordable And Inclusive Education

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By Nishant Chhinkwani:

Babai Das, Jhontu to his family and friends, is a happy go lucky young lad of eleven who lives in a tiny one roomed structure with his parents and an older brother located in one of the numerous slums of South Kolkata and attends the state aided local municipal corporation school. He’s fairly proficient in Bengali, but barely muddles through History, Geography and Science, has trouble in answering multiple tables of 4 and cannot speak a word of English. The state run school doesn’t start teaching English till the 6th standard, notwithstanding the fact that almost all communication in the nation and most of the globe happens in English. His elder brother dropped out at 16 after finishing his class 10 board examinations and started helping out his father in running his tea shop. Jhontu, the bright young lad with an infectious smile seems to be following the footsteps of his father and brother, already skipping school regularly to help at the tea shop. Needless to say, this family looks set to sink further into the quagmire of poverty with rising prices and diminishing purchasing power of money steadily on the rise and none of its sons making a mark in education – a sure shot, tried and tested, yet slithery ladder out of poverty.

Chile protests

There are millions of children and young adults like Jhontu and his brother who attend school and later drop out or do not pursue further education for the sake of earning the family bread, and remain stuck in their current predicament. They will probably end up passing down the same to their children and the vicious circle would go on and on.

The problem no longer lies in sending children to school. If the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) is to be believed, then 96.5% of all rural children between the ages of 6-14 years attended or were enrolled in school, a similar figure has been computed for urban children in the same age group. The question to be answered is why, even after notching up these admirable figures, are the children and the youth of our country coming from families of limited means, struggling to finish school or pursue higher education and how can this quandary be resolved?

chile 1

The answer to the former question lies in the poor standards of education that prevail in our state run schools which a majority of the underprivileged children attend. The possible answer to the latter part might lie half a world away in a different hemisphere. The place which, if one is inclined to believe the movie Motorcycle Diaries, forced Ernesto Che Guevara to rethink about his aim in life – history tells us the rest,

We could learn a thing or two from Chilean Student Protests also labeled as Chilean Winter or the Chilean Education Conflict by the media, which recently regained international attention with Chilean artist Francisco Tapia burning $500 million dollars worth student loan promissory notes that he had allegedly stolen from the Universidad del Mar after a student takeover. While that might not be the smartest move on the planet, it does shed light on the desperation of the Chilean students in face of poor State run public schools and exorbitant tuition fees in profit private institutions.

chile 3

The causes of the Chilean protests of 2011 might sound familiar. The Economist quotes, “one of world’s lowest levels of public funding for higher education, some of the longest degrees and no comprehensive system of student grants or subsidized loans.” BBC have attributed “students’ anger” to “a perception that Chile’s education system is grossly unfair — that it gives rich students access to some of the best schooling in Latin America while dumping poor pupils in shabby, under-funded state schools.” It can safely be inferred that Chile has long suffered from gross inequality in the quality of education and infrastructure between the State run public schools and the for profit private schools. Adding to the misery is a flat job market, which cannot gainfully employ a student unless he/she has a specific skill set that is best developed in a private school/University, given the pitiful infrastructure and standard of education in the State run institutions.

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?

The first wave of the 2011 protests started in May and is said to have its roots in the 2006 student protests, now known as the Penguin Revolution. In fact, many protesters who were in high school in 2006 subsequently participated in the student protests of 2011 while completing their University education. These protests were triggered partly by the then Minister of Education Joaquin Lavin’s initiative to increase Government spending on non-traditional Universities that were seen as non profit on paper. The stark reality, however, was different. Most of these institutions were notorious for using legal loopholes to make profits.

The students’ demands mainly included subsidized to free tuition for higher education, creation of laws against for profit Universities, more stringent accreditation processes to weed out poor quality institutions or force them to improve their standards and increased state spending on high school education among many others.

El Mercurio states that on June 13, about 100 schools were occupied by students protesting for education reforms. The Chilean police quote the number to be 50. While the veracity of either statement cannot be completely trusted, it might be safe to assume that the Chilean student protesters had started to make themselves heard. On a massive demonstration on June 30, around two hundred thousand protesters were said to have taken to the streets forcing the Chilean President to make an announcement that detailed the education reforms that the Government was planning to bring about. The announcement was met with skepticism and even harsh criticism from most quarters as it emphasized on a new legal framework for for-profit education providers and rejecting the public ownership of education as demanded by the student calling it an infringement on freedom to education and that it might damage the quality of education seriously.

The protests continued. In the two years that were to follow, it saw countless demonstrations filled with its fair share of violence, many Government proposals that weren’t deemed to be enough, two cabinet reshuffles in which the Ministers of Education were reassigned to a different Ministry, breakdowns in negotiations, and last but not the least, a new Socialist Government in place in 2013 which announced placing a universally accepted system of free higher education in place in the next six years.


In a span of two years, the Chilean protests have achieved the most important thing that they wanted – a comprehensive education program to improve the quality and the reach of education at the same time, irrespective of whichever economic strata the student belonged to.

Chile’s expenditure on education in terms of its GDP was 4.4% in 2008. A World Bank survey places India’s expenditure on education in terms of its GDP at a measly 3.17% in 2011.

The equation is clear. The parallels have been drawn. If the Babai Das’ of the country need to be nurtured in a comprehensive education environment for them to realize their true potential, ‘Viva la Revolucion’ a la Chile could be one of the very few possible ways to force the Government to take those necessary steps.

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  1. Vini Bhati

    Chilean Revolution should work as a “wake up call” for the degrading education standards of India. One of the most populous and “developing” countries in the world is suffering from a disgraceful divide in terms of quality education where the wealthy class have access to excellent private education while the poor are forced to go in poorly kept government schools which mars India ‘s reputation as that of a “progressive” nation.

    A very thought provoking article.

    1. Nishant Chhinkwani

      Precisely. The 3rd largest economy in terms of Purchasing Power spends still quite hasn’t woken up to the idea that they the road to El Dorado of sustainable growth and development lies in educating the young and letting them grow. That’s what Japan did after it was nearly decimated in World War II and we know where they stand now.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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