1 Voodoobei

Essay Womens Rights Chile

The election of Chile’s first female president in January 2006 sparked unprecedented interest in the developments of gender relations and women’s political roles in the country. Many observers, including the mass media, emphasized the paradox that the election of Michelle Bachelet posed in what was perceived to be one of Latin America’s most conservative countries.1 The results of the election were deemed particularly puzzling in light of who the female candidate was and what she represented politically. Bachelet was not just an “ordinary” woman, but a divorced mother of three, a recognized agnostic and a longtime socialist militant whose father had been imprisoned and killed during the military dictatorship and who had herself survived torture, imprisonment and exile.

The debate over the meaning of the presidential election positioned Bachelet’s life story and personal traits center stage as a point of departure for tracing the evolution of Chilean political culture during the last two decades, following the formal transition to democratic rule. Questions about her election—such as what its significance is for the balance of power between the political left and right in the country, what its relationship is to more substantive cultural transformations and to women’s place in society and, vice versa, what the impact of women’s rights and gender equality is on electoral politics—have been subject to heated debate before, during and after the election.

Though it is difficult to provide definitive answers to many of these questions, I argue that the latest victory of Chile’s ruling coalition, the Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia (Coaltion of Parties for Democracy),2 represents both continuity and significant change in the way that social-democratic governments have related to feminist demands and organizations since the 1990 transition. While a distancing and demobilizing policy toward civil society continues to mark contemporary Chilean politics, the ascendance of a socialist woman to the presidency has shifted and invigorated the emphasis on the policy agenda on gender issues.

Chile, the Concertación and the Ascendance of the Left in Latin America

The electoral triumph of left-wing candidates in most of the recent presidential competitions in Latin America constitutes one of the most significant political trends in the region in decades. Having the left in power poses important challenges for feminist activists and politics. However, dealing with Chile as part of this broader phenomenon can be misleading if we do not clarify the specificities of the Chilean experience with left governments.

The electoral triumph of the Concertación in January 2006 represents the fourth consecutive victory of this center-left coalition. In essence, the coalition has won every election since the 1988 plebiscite that marked the end of the Pinochet regime, making it the most successful political bloc in the country’s history, and the base of support for the last four democratically elected presidents.

Thus, the ascendance of the left in Chile is distinct from other such electoral phenomena in the region in at least three important respects: It occurred simultaneously with the transition from military to democratic rule; it is the longest-running experience of the electoral left in contemporary Latin America; and finally, it does not represent an electoral victory of the left per se but of a coalition that incorporates, and has been led for most of this period, by a centrist, Catholic party.

The year 1990 represented both the end of almost two decades of brutal military rule that destroyed democratic political institutions and repressed formal political activities, and the moment in which an important segment of the Chilean left successfully participated in an election that brought it to power. The relationship that developed between the new government (and the state) and women’s organizations therefore resulted not simply from left-wing parties’ ascendance to government, but also from a broader process of democratization that profoundly reconfigured the political scenario, the opportunities and restrictions facing civil-society organizations, and the personal and political decisions that many feminist militants who were committed to the process had to make.

A second factor that separates the Chilean experience with left governments from the broader trend in the region is the center-left coalition’s great stability in power. The sheer length of the Concertación’s rule has magnified its effect on society, on state-society relations and on civil society’s capacity to organize and negotiate vis-à-vis a strong and stable state and political party system. After 17 years of uninterrupted rule, the coalition has governed Chile for almost as long as the military did. The social-democratic-type socioeconomic model that has been promoted has generated a very clear set of policies, possibilities and limits for feminist organizing, making it difficult to blame women’s present living conditions and future expectations on authoritarian legacies or political opponents alone.

Yet, more important than the length of the Concertación’s rule is the fact that unlike the Lula government in Brazil, or the Chávez administration in Venezuela, it is not a left-wing bloc. The coalition governments—including the current one led by President Bachelet, as well as those led by former presidents Ricardo Lagos, Eduardo Frei and Patricio Aylwin—have all been dominated by the Christian Democrats, especially during the first two administrations, when they were the largest party within the coalition and the presidency was held by two of their members.

The presence of a political party that identifies itself as a confessional organization with clear links to Catholic social doctrine and that maintains close relations with the Catholic hierarchy has had a profound impact on the types of policies that the Concertación governments have pursued to advance women’s rights and gender equality. As we will see, the close association that part of the traditional left has established with the Christian Democratic Party has meant that many key feminist demands have gone unaddressed or unrecognized during its time in government, and this can largely explain the dramatic lack of progress on strengthening women’s sexual and reproductive rights to this day.

The left’s impact on Chilean feminist organizing and politics more broadly has been shaped by the specific configuration of political forces that compose the governing coalition. Thus, by supporting the democratic project promoted by the Concertación and fostering close links with the state, feminists have tacitly supported a center-left coalition that has committed to support social welfare and equal opportunity but has refused to address issues that might provoke internal conflicts, such as reproductive rights.

So when it comes to women’s organizing and feminist politics, the recent ascendance of the electoral left in Latin America is quite distinct as a political phenomenon from the longer experience with center-left governments in Chile.

Chilean Social Democracy’s Track Record on Women’s Issues

In an in-depth study of feminist organizations in post-dictatorship Chile published a few years ago,3 the authors concluded that the return to democratic rule and the transformation of the political opportunities that it entailed had a significant impact on women’s organizations and the feminist movement. While many feminist and women’s groups survived as organizations well beyond the transition, the close links forged in the struggle for democracy that had characterized the relationship between feminist groups and NGOs on the one hand, and base-level women’s organizations (especially poor women’s groups) on the other, became attenuated and pragmatic. They increasingly centered on organizing specialized events or projects, but with little long-term continuity or political impact beyond immediate goals.4

As occurred in other countries of the region, transitioning to democracy entailed the emergence of a dramatically new scenario for feminist activists: For the first time in decades, they were confronted with the challenge of interacting with the state and professional politicians and negotiating their political role with respect to political parties that now dominated the public sphere. The creation of the Servicio Nacional de Mujeres (National Women’s Service, SERNAM) in 1990 by the Aylwin government and the debate over a law to regulate domestic violence and other legislative initiatives that had long been central banners for the women’s movement, together with the inauguration of several social programs and policies aimed directly at women, forced feminists to transform the oppositional, anti-systemic ethos that had characterized the previous period of political mobilization into a more dialogue-driven stance.

International developments, such as changes in donors’ objectives and the organization of a series of UN summits that welcomed and encouraged civil society participation, coincided with this internal process of return to “politics as usual.” Their combined effect contributed to transforming Chilean feminism, a process that has entailed an increased diversification of topics, spheres of action and interlocutors, as well as a decentering and expansion of a once socially and ideologically homogenous core group of activists. At the same time, it has resulted in the disarticulation of a formerly prominent and active political movement that has slowly faded away.5 While an important segment of the feminist movement has become highly professionalized and internationalized, aiding state and intergovernmental institutions in the design and implementation of gender policies of different types, these same activists have kept few links with base-level organizations.

To what extent this transformation can be attributed to the ascendance of the political left is difficult to know. The experience of other countries in the region with similar transition processes has shown that most of these challenges and transformations are intimately linked to the change of political regimes and the international climate under which they occurred.6 Yet there are specific features present in Chile that have exacerbated and shaped this larger story of women’s organizing and democratic transitions.

As mentioned before, the 1990 transition coincided in Chile with the ascendance of part of the left to power. This entailed, among other things, a significant number of government positions, such as ministers, undersecretaries, and congress members, as well as an array of lower-level and technical posts filled by left-wing militants. This had a powerful impact on feminist organizing due to the widespread practice of double militancy among Chilean feminists: The great majority of women who participated in feminist groups during the period of military rule were also party militants.7 Thus, after the transition to democracy, some feminists, especially professionals who occupied leadership positions within left-wing parties, have had the opportunity to work as state employees or pursue careers as political representatives. Moreover, for the majority who have remained in other spheres of action, the links with the left have also played a crucial role inasmuch as they share a similar political project with those in power, and that project is constantly reaffirmed by the numerous personal, professional, family and political ties that many feminist have with state officials.

In this context, it is not surprising that the question of autonomy has been one of the most conflictive issues among feminists since the early 1990s. The close network that an important segment of the feminist movement has cultivated with the state aroused stark criticism from smaller radical groups that reject connections with the political system in general or with the Concertación in particular. As the links between different sectors of the movement weakened, and the national and international scenarios that stimulated debates regarding feminists’ links with state and international institutions changed, the question of autonomy has slowly become obsolete or been relegated to particular, and often marginal, circles of women’s organizations.

In terms of Chilean social democracy’s track record dealing with feminists’ demands and women’s interests more broadly, the results are haphazard. As the recent response of the UN Commission on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women’s expert panel to the Chilean government’s report on the status of women clearly shows, there are still many women’s rights issues pending after 17 years of social-democratic rule. The fundamental obstacles to further advances toward gender equality are linked to the still-complete ban on abortions, deficiencies in sexual-education programs, persistent high teenage pregnancy rates, continued political under-representation of women and discrimination faced by women entering the labor market, among other issues.

Nonetheless, it is impossible to ignore the significant inroads toward gender equality in many spheres of life and the sustained improvements in women’s lives resulting from the policies pursued by Concertación governments. Since 1990, poverty has been reduced throughout society (extreme poverty dropped from more than 40% of the population to less than 16% in this period); maternal mortality rates were cut in half and are among the lowest on the continent; women’s average schooling has surpassed that of men, with women representing more than half of all elementary, secondary and university students; most formal legal impediments to equality have been eliminated from civil, criminal and labor legislation; social programs have been designed and implemented to address the needs of specific groups of women, such as heads of households and seasonal agricultural workers; the law that criminalized domestic violence early after the transition has been reformed to increase penalties and better deal with victims; and the current government has launched a universal day-care program for all women in the poorest two quintiles of the population and is constructing shelters for battered women in several regions.

As most analysts would agree, the track record of center-left governments is not clear-cut. There has indeed been a formal and explicit commitment to eliminating the discrimination and marginalization of women, to promoting rights and social security, and to a broad policy of “equal opportunities.” The continuation of SERNAM as one of the biggest, best-funded and highest-ranked national women’s agencies in Latin America is a testament to this commitment.8

Notwithstanding that commitment, the period of social democracy has also had a problematic impact on women’s political-organizing capacity. All Concertación governments have failed to promote or strengthen civil society actors in general or women’s groups in particular, and they have tended to privilege “technical” exchanges with intermediary organizations, often professional NGOs or academic experts rather than political interaction with social or political actors. This has contributed to the fragmentation of the feminist movement and the increasing isolation of base-level women’s organizations, which are rarely invited to participate in highly professionalized networks between the “third sector” and the state.

Social Democracy with a Woman’s Face: Continuity and Change with the Concertación’s Model

Bachelet’s election represents both a continuation of the Concertación policies and general political understanding of gender issues, and a significant departure from them. Particularly during the presidential campaign and in her government program, Bachelet expressed her explicit commitment to past achievements and goals in terms of equal opportunities for women, yet shortly after the runoff election it became clear that she meant to make gender equality one of the key themes of her government, distancing herself from her predecessors, who had never made women’s rights a primary political concern.

The changes have been symbolic as well as material. As promised, Bachelet appointed the first-ever parity gender cabinet (50-50 men and women members) and extended the initiative to undersecretaries, regional governors and all high-ranking state officials whom she directly appointed. This has brought an unprecedented number of women into key political positions within the state apparatus, including the Ministry of Defense and the key political ministry, the General Secretary of the Presidency. As portrayed by the mass media and corroborated by some initial studies, the symbolic impact has been rapidly felt. Both men and women value the presence of women in high-ranking political positions, but women have been particularly stimulated by the protagonism achieved by this measure.

The examples of rhetorical and symbolic support for gender equality are many, but one of the most significant was the president’s first annual address to Congress on May 21, 2006. As one newspaper commented the next day, the president mentioned the word woman 36 times in her speech, which she began by invoking the name of well-known feminist historical leaders Elena Caffarena and Amanda Labarca, who are nonetheless very little known by the general public, and went on to repeatedly refer to herself as the first-ever female president and to highlight the significance of this.

“I am here as a woman, representing the defeat of the exclusion to which we were subjected for so long,” she said. “Today is the time to include in our development all those citizens that suffer other types of exclusions.” Language like that has been common in her public addresses.

As a socialist, Bachelet has continued to support and foster social-democratic initiatives that are most directly concerned with socioeconomic inequality. Her priorities have been on reforming the pension system inherited from the authoritarian period, strengthening public education, improving the quality and reach of health coverage, stimulating economic competitiveness and improving neighborhood infrastructure and security.9 Yet her commitment to women’s equality is one of her most omnipresent preoccupations, and she has not only pushed to smash the glass ceiling that women confront in politics, the economy and public service, but has also moved more decisively and consistently than any previous Concertación president toward dealing with issues of reproductive rights, including emergency contraception and sexual education.

The best example of the changes has been the Ministry of Health’s early approval of the Norms on the Regulation of Fertility. These will serve as a mandatory guide for all public health centers and include a very broad spectrum of measures, including a requirement that that all primary-care facilities provide emergency contraception to all girls and women of 14 years or older who request it. No parental or spousal approval is necessary, but counseling for young women is provided. Until this policy change, emergency contraception was only available free in the public sector for rape victims and for purchase in the private sector for anyone who could obtain a doctor’s prescription. By universalizing access, the new policy represents an important break. Both the right wing and the Catholic Church have adamantly opposed the measure, but until now they have been unsuccessful in overturning it, while the president and many of her cabinet members have adamantly defended it. The opposition has now taken the case to the Constitutional Tribunal, which will rule on it by March 2007.

Bachelet seems willing to confront the right wing and Catholic opposition to measures that would transform women’s role in society. She must, however, do so within a very constrained set of legacies and conditions. The coalition that supports her continues to be center-left; the Christian Democratic Party is still a powerful voice that opposes dramatic changes on many issues. All political parties, including those of the left, have shown little interest in supporting her gender agenda. Lastly, the feminist movement and women’s organizations are weak and divided. The future of feminist politics and women’s rights in Chile is thus highly dependent on the ability of women to mobilize to demand that social democracy live up to its promises of equity and solidarity for all.


  1. See for example the January 19, 2006, New York Times editorial “Women’s Place Revisited.”
  2. The Concertación, as it is commonly known, is the name adopted by the coalition of 17 political parties that joined forces in the late 1980s to campaign against the plebiscite organized by the military regime to ratify its desire to stay in power for another eight years. Some of these parties merged, while a few left the coalition, leaving today’s four parties: the Socialist Party (PS), the Party for Democracy (PPD), the Radical Social Democratic Party (PRSD) and the Christian Democratic Party (DC). The first three can be broadly classified as left-wing, with the PS and PPD being the most significant progressive parties, while the PRSD is a very small organization that serves as mediator within the coalition between the left and the Christian Democrat center.
  3. Marcela Ríos Tobar, Lorena Godoy and Elizabeth Guerrero, ¿Un nuevo silencio feminista? La transformación de un movimiento social en el Chile posdictadura (Santiago: Centro de Estudios de la Mujer/Cuarto Propio, 2004).
  4. Two Chilean sociologists have recently concluded a study on popular women’s groups in the greater Santiago area that confirms these earlier findings. See María Isabel Gannon and Eugenia Hola, ¿Feminismo en los sectores populares? Las organizaciones de mujeres en los sectores populares urbanos de la región metropolitana (Santiago: LOM, forthcoming).
  5. This argument is further developed in Ríos et al. (see note 3 above) and Marcela Ríos Tobar, “Chilean Feminism(s) in the 1990s: Paradoxes of an Unfinished Transition,” International Journal of Feminist Politics 5 (2003): 256–280.
  6. There are several important volumes that address this issue, including Sonia Alvarez, Engendering Democracy in Brazil: Women’s Movement in Transition Politics (Princeton University Press, 1990); Jane Jaquette, The Women’s Movement in Latin America (Boulder: Westview, 1994); Jane Jaquette and Sharon L. Wolchik, eds., Women and Democracy: Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998); and more recently, Mala Htun, Sex and the State: Abortion, Divorce, and the Family Under Latin American Dictatorships and Democracies (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
  7. Almost 70% of the feminist activists interviewed by Ríos et al. (see note 3 above) were active in women’s groups and left-wing political parties simultaneously for most of their lives.
  8. President Bachelet increased SERNAM’s 2007 operating budget by 13%.
  9. See first annual presidential address to Congress, May 21, 2006, www.presidencia.cl.

Marcela Ríos Tobar is a political scientist and the author of ¿Un nuevo silencio feminista? La transformación de un movimiento social en el Chile post transición (Santiago: Cuarto Propio, 2004). She directs the Program on Democratic Governance at FLACSO–Chile.

Today is a historic milestone for women’s rights in Chile and around the world—after months of contentious debate in Congress, the Chilean Constitutional Tribunal ruled that a bill that eases Chile’s total abortion ban is constitutional. The bill is now headed to President Michelle Bachelet—a champion of women’s rights—for signature.

Chile’s abortion ban was draconian: It applied to all circumstances including rape, incest, and when the woman’s life was in danger.

That meant that Chilean women who had an unviable pregnancy had to carry it to term. Rape or incest victims had no options. Women whose pregnancy threatened their own lives had zero say over their bodies and futures.

A relic of the Pinochet era, the ban was an outrageous, cruel, and blatant violation of human rights. Similar laws are currently on the books in several countries including El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic.

Even though over 70 percent of Chileans favor decriminalization, the opposition was formidable. The margins for passage in the Senate, a bicameral commission, and the Constitutional tribunal were razor thin. A well-funded, well-organized opposition fought tooth and nail against this bill every step of the way—and they have vowed to continue to challenge abortion rights.

As the CEO of International Planned Parenthood Federation’s Western Hemisphere Region, I work with hundreds of activists and service providers across Latin America and the Caribbean dedicated to challenging these dangerous laws and fighting for women’s rights. These extraordinary activists give me hope during the darkest of times.

Alongside our partners in the country, we are committed to ensuring that the law is implemented quickly and fairly, and most importantly, ensuring that abortion services are accessible to women who have limited to no access to quality healthcare due to their income, ethnicity, age or geographic location.

It won’t be easy—but today also serves as a historical reminder that organizing works. That advocacy works. That despite the odds, if we come together, if we work together, progress is possible. And I know we need that reminder now more than ever.

Of course, the stakes remain high. The challenges are real. President Trump didn’t just reinstitute the Global Gag rule on January 23; his administration expanded it to affect over 8.8 billion dollars in U.S. foreign aid. I want to be clear: women die from this policy.

We’re losing crucial funds needed to pay for preventative health services, contraception, cervical cancer screenings, and sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS. And evidence shows that Gag Rules instituted by prior U.S. administrations have not reduced the number of abortions; rather, by eliminating access to contraception, they have led to more unintended pregnancies and more unsafe abortions.

This in a region that not only faces some of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world but alarming rates of gender-based violence and a lack of comprehensive sexuality education. Our partner clinics offer crucial services and often operate in openly hostile political climates. But we are undeterred.

To all the other women in the region who are serving prison sentences for abortion, of being forced into pregnancy, who feel like they have no options—you are not forgotten. We get up everyday fighting for a brighter future, and today is a reminder that a glimmer of hope shines through the darkest of nights.

Giselle Carino is the CEO of the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s Western Hemisphere Office (IPPF/WHR). You can follow IPPF/WHR@IPPF_WHR

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