Chilean women are confronting their country’s pervading culture of sexism, discrimination and gender-based violence through direct action in the form of occupations and mass protests.
For the past month, Chile has been moving to the beat of demonstrations and university occupations carried out by a historic feminist movement calling for non-sexist education and an end to harassment and gender inequality.
According to the University Feminist Coordinating Committee (Confeu), 100,000 women marched through the streets of the capital, Santiago, on June 6 under the slogan: “We are all victims of precarity: students, migrants, mothers and women workers to the streets!”
This feminist movement is “unprecedented” in a country marked by the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-90), and where the Catholic Church “exerts considerable weight” on the political apparatus and on society, said Franck Gaudichaud, a senior lecturer in Latin American studies at the University of Grenoble.
It all started after a professor at the University of Southern Chile in Valdivia was found guilty of sexual harassing a woman employee. His only punishment was to be forced to change jobs. This led to the first feminist university occupation on April 17.
The University of Chile, in Santiago, where two professors were accused in 2016 of abuse of power and sexual harassment respectively, followed suit. As did twenty universities in the country, which have subsequently been occupied.
“It was the spark that ignited the movement: the demand to end impunity in Chilean universities. Moreover, people are talking about the ‘Chilean May’,” said Gaudichaud.
This feminist uprising is a continuation of the social gains that have recently — and belatedly — been won by women. The right to divorce was only recognised in 2004 and it was only last year that the state enacted the right to abortion in cases where the life of the mother is threatened, where the foetus is unviable, or if the pregnancy is a result of rape.
“Since 1990, and the end of the dictatorship, the right has done everything to block the advancement of women’s rights in parliament,” said Gaudichaud. “In people’s minds, the role of women continues to be that of a mother and a wife,” so this is “a long-term struggle”.
This is all the more so given that in Chile, sexual harassment is only punishable by law in the context of labour relations, from which the academic sphere is excluded.
This is one of the reasons behind the anger of Chilean students like Maria Fernanda Barrera Rodriguez, who is studying a Masters in Political Science at the University of Chile: “We are asking for an end to gender inequalities, rape culture, machismo and the patriarchal system, problems whose most extreme expression lies in femicides [36 femicides were reported in Chile last year] and whose origin lies in a cycle of violence — in particular among families — which is not legally punished.”
Inès Belhous, a French student in Santiago, pointed out that “street harassment is blatant. On the way between home and university, I’m whistled at, mentally undressed by passing men, honked at by motorists, non-stop.”
She added: “Men justify their actions by saying that machismo is part of the culture and that it is a way of valuing women.”
For more than a month, students have multiplied their occupations and carried out spectacular actions, sometimes topless, in the image of Femen, to “expose patriarchy,” as they put it.
For Barrera Rodriguez, it is about questioning “the reification of women’s bodies, and their reduction to consumable objects conditioned by male norms”.
Given the scale of the movement, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced a series of measures as part of a “women’s agenda” in late May, the most symbolic of which is to enshrine gender equality in the constitution.
Piñera hopes to calm student anger, whose ungovernable nature he knows only too well. His previous term (2010-14) was marked by a historic student movement in favour of free, quality public education, and which involved the biggest demonstrations since the fall of the dictatorship.
Those who today demonstrate against the patriarchal system remember this struggle, and have been politicised in their confrontation against the neoliberal conservatism that this right-wing billionaire embodies.
Education is essential
Chile’s feminist movement, which is in part inspired by the powerful Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) movement that spread from Argentina to the rest of Latin America, has maintained its radical autonomy from institutions and the political class.
It has called for the resignation of education minister Gerardo Varela, who said that Chilean women only suffer “small humiliations and discriminations”.
In the political arena, few opposition MPs have echoed the voices of the movement and Piñera has to contend with the most conservative fringes of his coalition, which are firmly opposed to feminist demands.
It is therefore unlikely that substantial change will come from above.
Faced with the inertia of the institutions, and the reluctance for change of the ruling classes, the movement is seeking to change the relationship of forces at the grassroots by leading a cultural struggle to change mentalities.
“The solution cannot only be punitive, education is essential,” said Barrera Rodriguez. “That is why we demand a non-sexist education be implemented throughout the country.
“I do not think this movement will solve all the problems, but what is happening in Chile will bring about a profound cultural change — it already has.”