Democracy at home and in bed – the struggle of Chilean women
The actions of Chilean women against violence against women have attracted attention and have been followed throughout the world . But the protests didn’t start in November, but already in March. [reading time 13 minutes]
The demonstration and strike of women in Chile in March this year was the biggest protest since the early 1990s, organized from scratch and as inclusive as possible. They had a lot to protest about: life, death and income.
More than 350,000 people traveled through the center of Santiago on March 8 to celebrate International Women’s Day and the first feminist strike in Chile. Most were young women, some had brought their partners and children. Under the watchful eye of the Carabineros, the Chilean national police, they sang, danced and screamed. Stray dogs followed the cheerful but angry demonstration.
There were human rights activists and women who had survived the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet from 1973-89. Many, such as Alicia Lira, head of the Agrupación de Familiares de Ejecutados Políticos (AFEP, relatives of executed politicians), carried photographs of missing female relatives: “The reasons why the dictatorship killed them are exactly the same as the reasons why we are now demonstrating: they wanted to build a free and equal society.
There were slogans about violence against women, discrimination against lesbians and transsexuals, poor conditions for female migrants and for equal pay. In addition to NGOs, there were civil society organizations, trade unions and Mapuche women in indigenous clothing who protested against the oppression of their population. A student carried a sign with the text ‘Free my ovaries: make abortion a right, safe and free’. Women from working-class neighborhoods, organized through the Ukamau network, demanded the right to housing. The Bread and Rose Movement, which has close ties with the small Partido de Trabajadores Revolucionarios (PTR, Revolutionary Workers Party), and some left-wing members of the national congress were present.
It was a spontaneous action
The conservative activist Javiera Rodríguez said: ‘It is typical of leftist groups and Marxists. They say they want to bring people together, but in the end they confuse everything. They started calling for a demonstration on International Women’s Day. Then it became a demonstration for ‘oppressed’ women, for ‘working’ women, and so on. The people who finally took to the streets discovered that they were demonstrating for pension reform and against pension funds, for the right to abortion and same-sex marriage. “
Rodríguez stood out during the feminist occupation of her university in 2018 when she brought down a banner with the text “No to harassment at the Catholic University” (in Santiago): “I could not accept the image that this slogan about our university gave. It was a spontaneous action. I pulled the banner down and I challenged the occupiers. I told them what I thought for the TV cameras. I did it out of respect for order and for our institutions. Some people will say that I am a fascist, but I don’t care. “
But the organizers of the 8 March demonstration thought the success was historic, albeit unexpected. It was one of the largest demonstrations since 1990, when the transition to democracy began in Chile; 800,000 people demonstrated in more than 60 cities across the country, including small provincial towns that hadn’t seen anything like it in 30 years.
The success was all the more surprising because Chile is a conservative country with a civil code dating from 1855. Divorce was only legalized in 2004 and abortion was (partially) decriminalized in 2017, after decades of opposition by the major political parties and the Catholic church. 
A few days before the demonstration there was already a response from the government. President Sebastián Piñera (a multi-millionaire and businessman re-elected in 2017 who was president of 2010-2017) appeared on one of the many private television channels that support him and called for calm: “It is wrong to take the noble cause of complete hijack rights and duties between men and women. I don’t think a strike is necessary because our government has made feminist affairs its own. “
His nervousness may have come from memories of the student demonstrations in 2018, against sexual harassment and for non-sexist education. The universities were occupied and reluctantly forced to recognize problems that went back many years. The well-known faculty members were targeted and some were suspended, including the former president of the Constitutional Tribunal. Even the venerable Papal Catholic University of Chile in Santiago (home of the ‘Chicago Boys’ who advised Pinochet during the military dictatorship) was occupied. That had not happened since 1986, and Rodríguez was angry.
The demands of women have old roots
This year’s feminist mobilization was much smaller than the major student demonstrations of 2011, during Piñera’s first tenure. 2] Those who then took to the streets and those who responded to the call for a feminist strike on March 8, wanted Chile to break with the terrible legacy of the military dictatorship. Successive Concertación governments [a center-left coalition of Socialists (PS), the Party for Democracy (PDD) and Christian Democrats (PDC)] did not do this for two decades that they were in power (1990-2010).
But the demands of today’s feminists have older roots. Historica Luna Follegati: ‘The feminist movement has never disappeared, despite the ups and downs in its visibility. Instead of ‘waves’ there have been three important periods. From the beginning of the 20th century to the 1950s, she focused on political and civil demands (in particular the right to vote, acquired in 1949). In the 1980s, the women of the working class fiercely opposed the dictatorship. And in recent years, the fight has focused on issues of sexual diversity, queer theory, and so on. “
The powerful Pro-Emancipation Movement of Chilean Women (MEMCH), originally active from 1935 to 1953, demanded the right to contraception and abortion, the legalization of divorce and equal pay through strikes. The founders of the MEMCH, including Elena Caffarena and Olga Poblete, helped to re-establish the organization in 1983 to combat the military regime. In addition, political scientist Julieta Kirkwood and architect Margarita Pisano joined, who came up with the slogan ‘Democracy in the country, at home and in bed’.
The democratic transition in 1989-90 maintained the economic model of the dictatorship and the constitution of Pinochet. The decrease in critical voices also made possible the emergence of ‘consensus democracy’, which is so highly praised by Chilean employers. The feminist movement, which gradually lost focus, strayed into gender policy and confined itself to reforms that were compatible with the ideology of market rule, to which many progressives converted. Some women managed to reach the highest level in the state as long as they did not disturb the status quo; below, working-class women and indigenous peoples saw no improvement in their situation.
Mother of all Chileans
The socialist Michelle Bachelet, a victim of dictatorship, agnostic and single, became minister in the 2000s and in 2006 the first female-elected president of South America. She was re-elected in 2014 and played her image as ‘mother of all Chileans’. But she did nothing to promote the feminist cause as she did not break with the social liberalism of her political clan. “She has achieved almost nothing in her first term,” said Gael Yeomans in her office in the working-class municipality of San Miguel.
Yeomans is a member of the left wing of the Frente Amplio (the Broad Front), a coalition founded in 2017, which brings together political movements from the center to the far left, including a number from the student movement of 2011. ‘During the second term of Bachelet’ , she said, “there was one positive measure: the introduction – finally! – from a Ministry for Women’s Affairs and Gender Equality. But the ministry received neither the budget nor the political attention it needed to be effective in all areas of society. Even the law on violence against women was neglected and in the end the right took the initiative.
The Women’s Agenda, a legislative package that Piñera launched in May 2018, combined a conservative vision (where women were usually reduced to the role of the mother) with economic neoliberalism. It called for equal representation on the boards of companies and a universal right to childcare for women with a stable employment contract (limiting its scope in a country where precarious employment is widespread, especially among women). Less than half of Chilean women have paid work and 31% have no contract or social or health insurance, or the right to join a trade union. 3] The president often says that he supports “women’s rights” (a singular that tends to reduce women to a mere idea), but he is not kidding anyone: he is known for his hostile outbursts, which have been in the media throughout his career. He is also under pressure from his partners in the coalition government, now a minority in parliament, including members of Opus Dei, anti-abortion activists and former supporters of Pinochet.
Right-wing members of the national congress have convinced the Constitutional Court that both institutions and individuals may have conscientious objections to abortion. The health care in Chile is mainly in private hands and is provided by religious organizations and a clinic can now declare that abortions will not be carried out in its buildings, thereby apologizing for non-compliance with both national and international law.
Not one less!
The Chilean feminist movement is not only concerned about the domestic situation. It is a basic movement driven by street demonstrations and recognizes itself in the calls for a women’s strike in Poland in October 2016, in the mass demonstrations in Madrid after the release of the rape-convicted men in 2018, and in the writings of Silvia Federici, Cinzia Arruzza , Nancy Fraser and Tithi Bhattacharya. But the most important involvement is with Latin America: the green scarves, which represent the fight for the right to abortion in Argentina, have crossed the Andes, just like the slogan “¡Ni una menos!”. (Not one less), in which the murder of women is denounced. This southern feminism is based on the experience gained with conferences in South America since the 1980s, although these are characterized by increasing divisions. There is a common will to protest against the murders of women in Ciudad Juárez (Mexico), San Salvador and Guatemala.
The coordination committee for the demonstration of 8 March was established in Santiago in early 2018 and subsequently made contact with other organizations in the provinces. Local women’s meetings drew up programs to get people moving. A year later, the committee still has no offices, but more than 60 organizations have been added.
Working committees for social coordination, communication and logistics were established and the spokespersons were selected in turns to vary the age, sexual orientation, social background and position of those responsible. “We wanted to break free from the masculine, patriarchal organization model that you find even at the left in politics,” an activist said. Strike committees in neighborhoods, posts on social networks and street recruitment by feminist brigades all contributed to the success of the 8 March demonstration.
Alondra Carillo, a spokeswoman for the movement, told me that the idea of a feminist strike came to the fore ‘precisely because the right to strike is not guaranteed for anyone. Our goal was to rehabilitate strikes as a political instrument. The labor legislation adopted by the dictatorship in 1979 limits the right to stop working for all employees to a minimum, as well as the freedom to unite. This restrictive legislation means that most strikes by workers who still dare to take action are declared unlawful and that public sector workers are completely deprived of this fundamental right. Carillo said: “The idea of a strike also implied the involvement of both women and men, even if women were to play the lead …
Hundreds of women became involved despite their differences. Some wanted to work exclusively in women’s environments (without men), others opposed this. Some wanted to make contact with political parties, the state and the media, others thought this was too risky.
Legal, safe and free
The ‘Women in Battle’ Conference in December 2018 brought together 1,200 women from all over Chile who formulated the call for a strike. According to Carrillo, the program prepared by the conference aims to integrate feminism into all aspects of the social movement, with demands for “non-commercial, non-sexist, anti-colonial and secular education”; for the recognition of the right to self-determination of indigenous peoples; for the recognition of the right to abortion as ‘legal, safe and free’, and for the ‘cessation of political, sexual and economic violence against women’.
According to official figures, almost a third of Chilean women are sexually abused at least once in her life. For years, the Chilean network against violence against women has condemned the fact that in Chile, on average, one woman is killed by a man every week (and that is not necessarily considered a femicide). Activists equate this with the violence of the neoliberal capitalist economic model. Carillo and her comrades take a position vis-à-vis the current government and current policy and point to the interfaces between gender, race and class domination.
Women are among the biggest losers in Chile’s ultra-capitalist economic model: Chile has a 45-hour working week, 70% of employees earn less than $ 825 a month and women get paid 30% less than men. They are discriminated against by health insurance policies because of the possibility of becoming pregnant. Since the 1980s, Chile has completely entrusted pensions to pension funds, on the initiative of José Piñera, brother of the current president and minister of Labor under the dictatorship.
The coordinating committee has to deal with criticism from Chile and beyond, threatening its commitment to unity. Mapuche poet Daniela Catrileo, member of the decolonial collective Rangiñtulewfü, said: “Today’s dominant feminist movement is closely linked to the student movement and the fight against sexual harassment at universities … The racialization of women, the demands of the Mapuche people and internal colonialism were insufficiently visible and insufficiently taken into account. We were also critical of the call for a ‘feminist strike’, because this term, which mainly comes from the North and from European movements, threatens to exclude many migrants and women with precarious jobs. Carrillo replied: “We proposed four ways of action: a strike at the workplace, if the situation of the employees permits; stopping care and unpaid work at home; stopping consumption; and public demonstrations’.
Demonstration was the core of the 8 March actions. The Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Chile (CUT), the largest trade union organization, did not support the strike call, which did not benefit the movement. The CUT has a female president, the communist Bárbara Figueroa, but the leadership of the CUT has always been reluctant to support movements that it cannot control. However, in some cities, including the port of Valparaiso, militant trade unions were found to be involved with repression by the police. Other organizations of employees in the public sector (the College of Teachers of Chile and the National Confederation of Municipal Health Workers) have also been involved.
We have made progress
Karina Nohales, a labor law expert, welcomed the progress made in just a few months, although there were still problems, especially in reaching the many working-class neighborhoods (poblaciones), female migrants and low-paid workers in Santiago. The prevailing image of feminists, mainly white and middle class, makes people reluctant to participate. “But,” she said, “the feminist struggle is now better represented in the poblaciones and a number of trade unions, especially in sectors [education, healthcare, government] where a significant proportion of employees are women.” The purpose of the coordination committee is to find an approach that appeals to all women and meets the expectations of both working-class women and migrants,
The strike was seen as a major step forward. The committee intends to build on this, to supplement the founding program by opening it up for discussion and to strengthen cooperation in Chile and internationally. The aim is to build bridges to female migrants, older women and minors, and to build bridges to female prisoners. Carrillo said: “It is a matter of showing that feminism is a real solution, especially at a time when extreme right-wing and reactionary movements are gaining strength throughout our region.”
Surveys show that the Catholic Church in Chile is steadily losing ground and that the pedophilia scandals that have been swept under the carpet by the church hierarchy have only made the situation worse. Meanwhile, the evangelical sects are gaining ground in the working-class neighborhoods. They are not all fundamentalist (two female ministers have participated in feminist meetings). Some small groups with fascist tendencies regularly attack – and with violence – feminists, lesbians and transgender people. And through the rearrangements of political movements, extreme right-wing politicians have come to the fore in the media and during elections, including José Antonio Kast (Republican Action Party), a critic of ‘gender ideology’. Kast is strongly opposed to abortion and those he is “cardboard feminists”
1] Abortion is only permitted in the event of rape, direct danger to the mother or non-viability of the fetus.
2] See Hervé Kempf, ‘Chile’s southern spring’ , Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, November 2011.
3] National Institute of Statistics of Chile, Santiago, October-December 2017.