X Close

The Bartlett Development Planning Unit

Home

Collective reflections about development practice and cities

Menu

A historic victory for gender equality in Chile

Ignacia Ossul Vermehren2 November 2020

By Ignacia Ossul Vermehren, Lieta Vivaldi & Camila Cociña


On Sunday 25th October, Chileans voted to overhaul the Pinochet-era Constitution. The country also determined that this new Constitution will be written by an assembly composed exclusively by elected citizens, half of whom will be women. In doing so, Chile will become the first country in the world to write a Constitution with gender parity.

Manifestation in Santiago for International Women’s Day, 8th March 2020. Galería Cima has recorded from above all events in Plaza Dignidad since October 2019. Source: Galería Cima


The protests and the overall claim for Dignidad

On 18th October 2019, simmering social unrest in Chile exploded. Led by students in response to Metro ticket price rises by 30 pesos, protests spread across the country, exposing deep inequalities and systemic injustice. “No eran 30 pesos, eran 30 años” (“It wasn’t 30 pesos, it was 30 years”) became a mobilising slogan for protesters that claimed several demands to address multifold inequalities experienced by the majority of people.

The protests were framed, in broad terms, as a response to the failure of the neoliberal system. While economic and social policies have for decades led to successful macro level indicators, the model has deepened disparities in terms of distribution, political power and representation. The consequent human rights violations and police brutality that followed the protests, only deepened the sense of injustice. Issues of representation of ethnic groups and women in politics played a key role, as well as demands related to pension, health and environmental issues, summarised under the overall claim for Dignidad (Dignity). The demands for change were so fundamental, wide-reaching and varied, that less than a month after the beginning of the protests the political establishment agreed on setting up a route map to write a new Constitution through a democratic process. One year and one week later, the country was finally given the chance to vote on whether or not to write a new Constitution, and if so, who would be responsible for writing it.

 

A new Constitution to address entrenched social inequalities

The results were overwhelming. With a large turnout across the country, 77.6% voted in favour of a new Constitution. Crucially, 78.99% determined that it should be written entirely by elected citizens, half of whom will be women, rather than both citizens and members of parliament.

How and why did a mobilisation driven against inequalities find an answer in a claim for a constituent process? And what do the results and the nature of the body in charge of writing the new Constitution tell us about the fight for gender equality in Chile and Latin America?

When social mobilisations and violence exploded in October 2019, many figures from the establishment claimed that they ‘didn’t see this coming’; while the statement seems to project some humility, it is hard to comprehend it in a country where the depth of inequalities and the ‘social gap’ had been widely researched and socialised by organisations from diverse sectors, as encapsulated by the report “Desiguales” (“Unequals”) published by UNDP in 2017. Even more, mobilisations and unrest against injustices in different arenas had grown exponentially: while students’ mobilisations for public education trembled the political agenda in 2006 and 2011, the last decade witnessed the emergence of massive protests around gender and indigenous rights, environmental concerns, and pension issues.

Looking back, what all these mobilisations had in common was a call for what the 2019 mobilisation coined as ‘dignity’. From a social justice perspective, the distribution aspect of inequality was only one of the elements at stake: claims for representation and parity participation have been central to all of them. While some legal reforms were introduced in each of these sectors as response to citizens’ claims, the impasse for structural change seemed to be always the same: the burden of the Constitution written during the dictatorship in 1980, and its limitations to adapt to the claims of the majority while concentrating power in a few. Unsurprisingly, the demand for a new Constitution had been growing as a significant claim by civil society groups and new political forces (who in 2013 articulated the campaign #MarcaAC), and also by authorities that led President Michelle Bachelet (2014-2018) to launch a first attempt of re-writing a democratic Constitution through self-organised local assemblies (for an assessment of that process, see here).

But the demand wasn’t just for any new Constitution, or any constituent process. While significant in itself, the overwhelming triumph for writing a new Constitution is as telling as the nature of the politics of representation of the body that will write it up. This representation was determined in March 2020, when parliament voted for any citizen-based constitutional convention to be gender equal, following long-term demands for gender parity. In voting for a new Constitution written exclusively by elected citizens, Chile has voted to become the first country to enshrine the equal representation of women and men in the writing of its Constitution.[1]

Poster in Santiago’s street. It reads: ‘Against all violence: neoliberal, clasist, racist and patriarchal. We resist to live, we fight to transfor”. Source: Ignacia Ossul, December 2019.


The key role of feminist movement(s)

 Chile has historically been one of the most conservative countries in terms of gender rights in Latin America; abortion was only made legal in 2017, and only on three grounds. Yet, it was the first country in Latin America to establish a Department of Women’s Services in the 1990s which became the Ministry of Women and Gender Equality in 2016. During Michelle Bachelet governments (2006-2010; 2014-2018) many progressive gender bills were put forward, such as the newly passed abortion law.

Progress has not been limited to legislation. Many believe last year’s extended protests were made possible by feminist groups, who played a key role both in setting the agenda and in mobilising people on the street. The 2016 feminist protests of “Ni Una Menos (‘Not one [woman] less’), in which thousands of women in Chile and across Latin America marched to demand the end of gender violence, is also seen to have prepared the ground for last year’s mobilisations. In May 2018, the “Chilean feminist revolution” took place. It began in universities with demands for equal rights in higher education, to stop sexual assault and to incorporate feminist theories and authors to the syllabus. These demands expanded later to different social inequalities caused by patriarchy and neoliberalism that were an important precedent to feminist demands from October 2019 onwards.

Many of the most enduring, widely shared and internationally recognised images of the protests were based in feminist demonstartions, whether through the performances of Un violador en tu camino” (‘A Rapist in Your Path’) by art collective “Las Tesis” and the giant textile banner “Borda sus Ojos in which women from across the country embroidered an eye to denounce police brutality implicated in 359 recorded eye injuries. The banner was subsequently displayed this year in the Museum of Memory and Human Rights.

During December 2019, thousands of women gathered in the national stadium in Santiago to perform “Un Violador en tu camino” (‘A Rapist in Your Path’) by Las Tesis. Source: “Las Tesis, Estadio Nacional” by pslachevsky under CC license.

The outcome of the plebiscite directly reflects the demands of feminist groups for more representation and parity in political participation in decision-making spaces. This victory has already set a precedent for representation and inclusion of other groups, which has been taken forward by a bill to include additional reserved seats for indigenous peoples in the writing of the Constitution, currently being debated in parliament.

The details of the referendum results, at this early stage, seem to manifest some of the intersectional claims for recognition and participation that had been raised over the last decade: first, the social gap and concentration of power of elites resistant to change was manifested by the fact that the option against the new Constitution only won in the three richest districts of Santiago,[2] which has led some to say that “No eran 30 pesos, eran 3 comunas” (“It wasn’t 30 pesos, it was 3 districts”); second, in a country where participation in elections had systematically decreased since the return of democracy in 1990, this plebicite witnessed an increase of turnout particularly in poor and segregated districts, such as La Pintana and Puente Alto in Santiago, with increased turnout from young urban groups, who were consistently seen as the most politically disaffected group; and finally, looking at the districts in which the support to the new Constitution was the highest (with triumphs of around 90%) they tend to be small towns or rural areas that had been at the eye of the storm of environmental conflicts over the last years, led by local communities against extractive companies. All in all, these results speak of a hope for change precisely from those groups that have been marginalised from the narratives of development and growth that have dominated the country, and women are not the exception.

Mapuche and Wiphala flags in manifestations, which took place every Friday in downtown Santiago. Source: Camila Cociña, December 2019.


The Constitution from a feminist perspective and how it could bring about change

In terms of gender equality, the opportunities in the Constitution for social change are immense, both in the recognition of women in decision-making spaces, as in the potential for a gender approach to the creation of the Constitution. Although the equal participation of women and men in the Constitutional convention alone does not guarantee feminist outcomes and the protection of women’s rights, particularly considering the wide diversity of age, class, ethnicity and political beliefs of the women involved, this remains a significant step towards improving gender representation in the country.

Before 2015, Chile had one of the lowest rates of female parliamentary participation in Latin America: 15.8% compared to the average of 27.8% in Latin America. It was only after the introduction of a new law on gender quotas for 40% of the candidates, that the percentage of elected women increased to 23%. This is still lower than the average in the region and far from Nordic countries, that have 42.5% of female representation in parliament.

To think a Constitution from a feminist perspective is much more than including an article establishing that men and women are equal before the law. Formal equality has proven to be completely insufficient in order to really guarantee women’s and sexual diversity rights.

On the one hand, feminist demands involve expanding rights that have been historically made invisible, such as domestic and reproductive labour, sexual and reproductive rights, and the prohibition of discrimination; additionally to incorporate gender perspective to rights that are already in the constitution, such as health care, education, and so on. On the other hand, a gender perspective implies questioning the politics of representation of diverse identities, knowledges and claims; then, writing a feminist Constitution means also to ensure a mechanism to distribute and negotiate power, ensuring that multiple and often marginalised identities are recognised in decision-making processes in the long term.

The constituent process is an opportunity to expand this approach to all government bodies: the equal representation of men and women in each state branch and institution is also crucial to ensure the inclusion of women and sexual dissidence in processes of decision making. Furthermore, Chile has subscribed and ratified international treaties with commitments to ensure several women’s rights, and the way in which the legal system includes them to then apply them by national courts, is also a matter of the constituent discussion. Last, the state should have specific obligations and duties in order to incorporate gender perspective in public policies, judicial decisions and national legislation.

Even if the outcome of the Constitution is unknown, the decision to vote for gender parity of those writing the Constitution is an enormous win for Chile, and a model for democratic politics of representation and parity participation around the world.

Graffiti in Santiago. It reads: ‘No fear / It was sadness, it was rage, it was us / New Constitution!’. Source: Camila Cociña, December 2019.

 

[1] Additional to these three districts (Las Condes, Lo Barnechea, Vitacura), there were another two small districts where the option against the new Constitution won (Antártica and Colchane, both of which are rural areas with military bases), making it to a total of 5 out of the 346 districts of the country. For a complete analysis of the territorial distribution of the results, see “Cartografías del apruebo: notas de trabajo”.

[2] Even if similar processes in other countries have ensured minimum quotas for women as candidates and elected representatives, this will be the first case in which the final composition of the body in charge of writing the new Constitution will be actually composed by 50% women. For more information, see “Facts and figures: Leadership and political participation”.

 

Ignacia (University College London), Lieta (U. de Chile and UAH) and Camila (University College London) are academics from Chile working on women’s rights, feminist theory, poverty, planning and urban equality.

What is in a name? Applying critical race and feminist lenses to make knowledge production processes visible

ucfukpa21 September 2017

The ‘positionality paragraph’ is a ubiquitous part of many a doctoral thesis and journal paper. It tends to list a series of identity attributes that cover the gender, age, nationality and possibly race of the author. The meaning coded into these represent an assumed shared understanding between reader and writer, whereby there is an unspoken invisible communication that suggests one’s gender (for example) affected access to respondents, influenced data analysis and in turn affected the claims one makes of data. The invisibility of epistemological reflexivity drives these bland assuming paragraphs and hides the insidious workings of gender and race particularly in the production of knowledge.

Researcher and respondent at a housing relocation site in Ahmedabad, India

Researcher and respondent at a housing relocation site in Ahmedabad, India

In my paper, What is in a name? How caste names produce situated knowledge, published in Gender, Place and Culture last week, I make visible the reflexive process that reveals the role of gender, race and caste in creating partial and situated knowledge of housing tenure in India. Through the use of three vignettes, two on fieldwork encounters and one on comments from an anonymous reviewer, I examine expectations of knowledge coded in my name and their effects on access to respondents, the disclosure of data and subsequent claims to validity. The paper utilises Bourdieu’s concept of doxa – a pre-reflexive intuitive knowledge – to untangle the effect of names on the research process and on knowledge production. It also applies a critical race lens to problematise the separation of epistemological reflexivity from discussions on positionality.

While I hope all readers will gain something from the paper, it is written for feminist researchers of colour who conduct research away from ‘home’ to help guide us to think through the ways in which we are situated as researchers and the identities to which we are subjected within research that services the western academy. The position from which I reflect and the conclusions I draw are largely absent in the field of critical feminist work on positionality, which is overwhelmingly written by and for white western feminists.

As I write in the paper, “The central purpose of the article is driven by Aisha Giwa’s (2015) critique that most discussions on positionality in research centre on the western academy and the positionalities of white feminist western researchers, and her subsequent call for epistemological reflections on methodology from scholars of colour which might provide different ways of thinking through positionality in fieldwork. Giwa’s discussion touches much larger points that I try to engage with through this article though not directly in this article: the positioning of black and brown bodies in geography research particularly, as research subject in a place and rarely research producers; and for those black and brown bodies that produce knowledge, discouragingly limited conversations about race, culture, epistemology and positionality in social science research, including an acknowledgement that a relationship exists between them and what this relationship might look like.” My paper is a small contribution to a large challenge.

References

Giwa, A. 2015. ‘Insider/Outsider Issues for Development Researchers from the Global South.’ Geography Compass 9(6):316-326.

Patel, K. 2017. ‘What is in a name? How caste names produce situated knowledge.’ Gender, Place and Culture. Doi.10.1080/0966369X.2017.1372385

MILEAD Fellows: Exemplifying Feminist Leadership at the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women

ucfuahe6 April 2016

On March 16th, 2016, when I arrived at my first event for the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations headquarters in New York, I realized something very profound. As a social development practitioner, this is one of the few times I’ve experienced young African women as the primary narrators of issues affecting African women and girls in their countries and communities.

Moremi_pic_1

MILEAD Fellows after their panel for the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations

The Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa (Moremi Initiative) hosted the session entitled “Enhancing Young Women’s Voices for Women’s Empowerment and Sustainable Development: A Multi-generational Dialogue with Emerging African Women Leaders”. As the girls on the panel presented, the aim and the focus of the Moremi Initiative became clear to me. The organization “strives to engage, inspire and equip young women and girls to become the next generation of leading politicians, activists, social entrepreneurs and change agents”. This is achieved through the MILEAD fellowship (Moremi Initiative Leadership and Empowerment Development), which selects young women ages 19-25 from various African countries and the Diaspora to sharpen their leadership skills via trainings, mentorship, networking and resource mobilization. The twenty fellows showcase members of different cohorts from 2009-2015, and represent more than 15 countries attracting a wide audience including 2011 Nobel Prize Laureate, Leymah Gbowee who supports the organization and provides mentorship to the fellows.

While reflecting on this experience, I had a strong sense that an essential ingredient in successfully bolstering African women and girls as change agents is the organization’s emphasis on transformative, feminist leadership. So, I had to ask myself, “what defines this kind of leadership, anyway”? My definition is derived from authors like Srilatha Batliwala (Batliwala, 2010), who believe that it requires engagement with power, politics and values. I will now outline the ways in which I believe the Moremi Initiative cultivates this type of leadership.

Moremi_pic_3

MILEAD Fellows celebrating at the AWDF 15TH anniversary gala

 

  1. Moremi, Power and Politics

On the surface, Moremi Initiative may appear to be another leadership program. Yet, what makes it formidable is that it is not soliciting African women’s participation in predefined projects affecting them and their communities. Instead the organization acknowledges that African women and girls hold the solutions and must define and set their own agendas. To this end, Moremi Initiative equips fellows with the tools, resources and the space to negotiate their own narratives’ and set the agenda for social change in their regions, countries and communities. Fellows get connected to powerful institutions while being provided with a dynamic support network and training to chart their course as emerging leaders. With these new skills, fellows are able to effectively articulate and advocate for the issues that affect them, their peers and women and girls broadly. One of the fellows who spoke at the CSW event identified this as one of the most important components of the program. Elizabeth Jarvase from South Sudan explains, “After joining the Moremi Initiative, I have represented South Sudan more than three times internationally, simply because ‘Moremi’ gives young African women space to develop and grow; it creates opportunities, and it provides the tools and skills needed to focus and advocate for our different causes with passion and integrity”. One of my favorites moments at the panel entailed Elizabeth putting forth a discussion on the human rights abuses related to the current civil war in South Sudan. She then eloquently asked the audience to reflect on how we can use our knowledge, abilities and power to end the suffering of women and children in this crisis.

 

  1. Moremi, Politics and Value: embedding women’s empowerment in social justice

One of the aspects I revere the most about the Moremi Initiative is the way in which feminism is treated as an integral part of social justice work in Africa. After one of the MILEAD trainings, a fellow reflected, “I also got enlightened on the term feminism which interested me a lot because of its concepts. I also got to know that it is a very good term, and in my own understanding I have come to define feminism as having equal rights and opportunities between men and women” (Winnie, 2015). Many of the girls in the program come from diverse backgrounds and advocate for an array of issues ranging from youth empowerment to clean water, not all are overtly related to gender. Yet the choice to introduce and engage with definitions of feminism is both political and indicative of a value that upholds gender equity. I believe this is essential to achieving a type of leadership that places African women at the forefront of social change.

Moremi_pic_2

MILEAD Fellows with Moiyattu Banya, host and volunteer AWDF USA board member, celebrating at the AWDF 15TH anniversary gala.

 

  1. Moremi: creating resilient leadership and values through inter-generational mentoring

Another objective of the MILEAD program is to “build intra and inter-generational solidarity that cuts through borders”. I witnessed this while attending the 15th anniversary gala celebrating the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), and it was magnetic to see the confluence of generations in the same space. Described as being “at the forefront of the African women’s movement, AWDF supports the work of African women’s organizations and activists throughout the continent” (Siyonbola, 2016). The organization boosts of a dynamic and pan-African network, which is why Moremi Initiative prioritizes bringing fellows into these spaces to ensure the building of bridges across generations. This not only maintains the legacy of African women’s leadership, but also engenders the emergence of fresh new ideas and issues from younger generations.

I want to conclude this reflection from a place rooted in my own personal history and experience. I am a non-African woman, raised in the United States. As an ally, I believe one of the best ways I can support the Moremi Initiative is nurture deeper relationships and leverage opportunities to grow, and acquire relevant knowledge and skills about Africa, women and girls. When all is said and done, for me it is important to always be conscious that this platform is ultimately about the voices and decision-making of African women and girls.

After all, this is what moved me most about the Moremi Initiative’s participation at the 60th session of CSW: many individuals, including allies, partner organizations and donors aided in getting the fellows to New York. Yet the stories heard in the room that morning — the topics of discussion — were all determined and articulated by bold, visionary, resilient and emerging young African women leaders.

More information on Moremi Initiative can be found on their website, and you can also check out their Facebook page.

 

References:

Batliwala, S. (2010) Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation: Clearing the Conceptual Cloud. Crea-Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action. Available at: https://www.justassociates.org/sites/justassociates.org/files/feminist-leadership-clearing-conceptual-cloud-srilatha-batliwala.pdf

Winnie, N. (2015) Winnienansumba. [Blog] World Press. Available at: https://winnienansumba.wordpress.com/2015/08/27/24/.

Siyonbola, O. (2016) Incredible Women Don’t Just Happen: AWDF’s 15th Anniversary. Applause Africa. Available at: http://applauseafrica.com/2016/03/18/incredible-women-dont-just-happen-awdfs-15th-anniversary/


Ashley Hernandez is an SDP graduate who is passionate about gender equity.  She is currently working with Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa and volunteered with the African Women’s Development Fund USA for their 15th Anniversary Gala.