Women in Chile are challenging gender-based violence through song, continuing a national tradition of music as a tool of social justice and human rights.

In mid-May 2016, in the chilly hours before dawn, a young woman was found lying unconscious on a pavement in Coyhaique, a city near the southern tip of Chile. She was hypothermic and her eyes had been gouged out. One year on, the name Nabila Rifa, as well as the horrific details of her former husband’s attack, witnessed by her four young children, are familiar to many Chileans. With the Criminal Court of Coyhaique’s ruling of 2 May 2017 that sentenced Nabila’s aggressor for attempted femicide and serious injury, her name become synonymous with justice. However, two months later the Supreme Court’s dismissal of the attempted femicide charge, lowering the sentence to 18 years, proved that justice is as elusive as ever for victims of violence against women in Chile.

In early May, some 1,600 kilometers to the north, in Santiago, a song was released that aims to become a cultural tool to prevent crimes such as the one Nabila endured. On 5 May, ‘Nunca más, mujer’ (‘Never again, woman’) was performed during the national congress of the Chilean Network against Violence to Women and follows in the footsteps of the Canto Nuevo (New Song) movement which emerged in the mid 1970s as a dissident expression against the Pinochet dictatorship. Just as the distinctly Latin American rhythms of Canto Nuevo inspired hope and resistance to the repressive Pinochet regime, ‘Nunca más, mujer’ emerges from a collective effort, striving to become much more than a melodious tune.

Whereas the Canto Nuevo protagonists considered the political violence practiced by the dictatorship as the target of their music, ‘Nunca más, mujer’ has culturally-rooted violence against women in its sights. And while the pantheon of Canto Nuevo singers was largely male, this song was written, arranged, and performed by women.

‘Nunca más, mujer’ emerged from a workshop for women songwriters, convened in November 2016 by US singer, feminist and peace activist Holly Near and the Santiago-based Educación Popular en Salud (Popular Education in Health, EPES) Foundation.

Near’s song ‘There’s a woman missing in Chile’ and her performances with Inti-Illimani across the United States in the 1980s helped ignite condemnation of the Chilean dictatorship’s human rights violations. In songs such as ‘Singing for our Lives’, her voice also rallied thousands against sexual violence in Take Back the Night campaigns that began in the 1970s and resumed with force in the early 2000s, as well as the Marches for Women’s Lives, in the United States.

Since its founding in 1982, the EPES Foundation has developed an innovative participatory methodology that empowers working-class women to fight for the right to health. Its approach to social determinants of health, from a gender focus, has shaped public health policy on issues such as HIV/AIDS prevention and violence against women.

Under Chile’s military dictatorship, thousands of political prisoners were tortured but women prisoners, in particular, were subjected to sexual violence. Today, the governmental Servicio Nacional de la Mujer (National Service for Women, SERNAM) indicates that half of Chilean women have experienced domestic violence from their partner. Since 2010, when Red Chilena Contra Violencia hacia las Mujeres (Chilean Network Against Violence to Women)  began to systematically document such incidents, between 45 and 65 women have been murdered each year by a current or former partner, according to the network.

Near and EPES believe that music has the power to create a rift in this culturally-ingrained practice. This belief in the power of song to effect societal change harkens back to the Canto Nuevo movement.

María Eugenia Calvin, social worker and founding member of the EPES team, coordinates the organisation’s initiatives on violence against women. Calvin explained her expectations for ‘Nunca más, mujer’, whose production and marketing are funded by EPES: ‘Very concretely, my hope is that the words of this song will help many women realise that they live situations of violence, that they are not alone, and that it helps them recover autonomy by hearing the voices of other women saying ‘Never Again’. Culture legitimises violence against women through images, songs, literature and jokes… We hope the song will become a cultural tool at the service of actions to create greater awareness and mobilise women’s organizations fighting for rights and to transform discriminatory power relationships.’

Singer-songwriters Cecilia Concha Laborde and Claudia Stern voluntarily produced the song after participating in a workshop organised by Near in Chile in November 2016. For Concha Laborde, founder of the Latin American women musicians’ organisation Trovadoras sin Fronteras (Troubadours without Borders), ‘Our aim is ambitious. We want this song to be a tool for transformation; we want it not just to denounce injustice but to change it. Historically, songs containing a social message unveil injustice, but that’s not all they do. They also convoke, convince, and inspire people to change an unjust situation.’

Concha Laborde went on to describe what the song meant for her: ‘This particular song arose from deep inside us; all of us have or have heard stories about what our grandmother, aunt, mother, or daughter has lived through in terms of gender violence. The opportunity to build together something that holds such promise and the possibility of supporting other women who are fighting to end this violence, has been a tremendously moving experience.’

Claudia Stern, Cecilia Concha Laborde, Jacqueline Castro and US musician Christelle Durandy, who also participated in the workshop, composed the simple but direct lyrics of ‘Nunca más, mujer’. Elizabeth Morris provided the instrumentation. After the track was recorded, workshop participants reunited at the Naranja Mecánica (Clockwork Orange) recording studio in Santiago to add the vocals. The song’s captivating melody, slightly reminiscent of traditional Mapuche rhythms, begins with solo voices, and is then joined by a soaring choir in crescendo.

The eight voices heard in the ‘Nunca más, mujer’ recording are those of Alexandra Acuña, Isabel Aldunate, Jacqueline Castro, Cecilia Concha Laborde, Evelyn González, Nicole Gutiérrez, Yasna Millaqueo, and Claudia Stern. One of the eight voices comprising the choir is the song’s most direct link to the Canto Nuevo movement. Isabel Aldunate, whose own soprano voice was first heard in 1977 during the dictatorship, says that in singing songs such as ‘Yo Te Nombro Libertad’ (‘I Name You Liberty’) she sought to project ‘rage, insolence, provocation, and to say ‘here we are’, and we are thousands!’

Aldunate, who recently performed recitals of her arrangements of Nobel Prize Laureate Gabriela Mistral’s poems, affirms, ‘I grew up knowing about that kind of treatment of women, but no-one talked about it then.’ During the Chilean dictatorship, it surely existed too, but ‘was eclipsed by a tyrant who murdered, made people disappear, tortured them and sent them into exile,’ she says. ‘This song will enable the recovery of something very important that we had in dictatorship but was later lost: solidarity. The song evokes solidarity and it’s going to help us unite. We were able to get rid of the dictatorship because we were united, and now we will reunite to get rid of this other dictatorship affecting so many women.’

‘When I heard the recording, it instantly captured me, and the song kept going round in my head for days. That says a lot about its power. I think something beautiful is going to happen with this song. Someday it will be sung by thousands,’ remarks Aldunate,

Returning to Coyhaique, in the days before the court’s final ruling, Nabila Rifo affirmed, ‘I hope no one will experience what happened to me. This has to change; not a single woman more should ever be attacked in any place.’

Maybe Nabila’s children, struggling to understand the violence that tore their family apart, will also hear ‘Nunca más, mujer’ and understand how important it is that women and men stand up for a life free of violence.

Watch the music video for Nunca Más Mujer on Alborada YouTube channel here or below.