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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.

Gender and sanitation: the hidden issue of gender-based violence

Christopher Yap11 March 2015

Trucks depositing liquid waste operate on the edge of the Kombo Ward in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Image: Adriana Allen

Trucks depositing liquid waste operate on the edge of the Vingunguti settlement in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Image: Adriana Allen

Access to safe, dignified and appropriate toilets and sanitation facilities is a basic right for women, men, boys and girls worldwide. However an estimated 2.5 billion people still do not have access to adequate sanitation facilities globally. This issue is most prevalent in the Global South, and in urban contexts a lack of appropriate sanitation facilities is a particular, commonplace condition of informal and unplanned settlements.

Sanitation in informal settlements

Lack of access to appropriate sanitation facilities is closely related to the complex reality of insecure living conditions facing informal urban inhabitants. Those living in ‘slums’ are often denied access to formal infrastructure due to their insecure tenure and livelihoods, and marginalised status within the city.

As a result, these citizens are forced to develop their own infrastructures for toilets and sanitation. Each solution, including communal, privately funded facilities, and pit latrines, comes with its own assemblage of risk, be it health or hygiene-related, environmental or social, or a combination of these.

The vast majority of toilets and sanitation facilities in informal settlements exist not in private homes, but in public spaces. The nature and degree of risk associated with these spaces reflects the broader social relations of power in the community. Central to this inequitable distribution of risk is the issue of gender inequality.

Image: Adriana Allen

Image: Adriana Allen

Gendered differences in use of public space

In many patriarchal societies, a public/private space dichotomy exists by which women’s access to public space is more restricted than men’s. Women’s mobility is restricted due to both time constraints associated with reproductive roles as well as ‘symbolic dimensions surrounding the ‘forbidden’ and ‘permitted’ use of spaces governed by patriarchal power relations and norms of female propriety.’ [1]

Gender-based violence is an expression of these unequal gender relations. It exists in a variety of forms, from physical abuse, assault and rape, to verbal insults and psychological trauma.

In this sense it might be understood as a response to perceived infractions of gendered ideologies (such as women moving freely in public spaces or earning more in a household than men). While the vast majority of gender-based violence is perpetrated by men against women, men and boys can also be victims. In Mumbai, for example, the practice of ‘eve-teasing’ is commonplace, with men targeting women with obscenities and in some instances throwing stones.

Women adapt to avoid risks – but where does the problem lie?

In informal settlements, women are often at greater risk of gender-based violence due to the lack of effective policing, and lack of access to formal recourse mechanisms, including the justice system itself. In many cases the onus is on women to alter their behaviour in order to avoid risk, rather than the perpetrators.

For example: WaterAid found that 94% of women they surveyed in Bhopal, India faced violence and harassment when going to defecate, and a third had been physically assaulted [2]. Communal toilets are often built near the peripheries of settlements, meaning that women are more vulnerable to assault, particularly at night and in areas with little or no public lighting.

The facilities themselves can be poorly maintained, unhygienic and lack privacy for women. These conditions drive the practice of open defecation in settlements, which increases the health risks to the community and further exposes women to violence amongst other risks.

The association between gender-based violence and toilet and sanitation facilities in informal settlements is only one manifestation of citywide injustices relating to gender, class, caste, and identity amongst others. Lack of access to adequate toilet and sanitation services can lead to an increased vulnerability to gender based violence in different forms.

Vingunguti in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Image: Pascale Hofmann

Vingunguti in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Image: Pascale Hofmann

A right to safe and secure sanitation

Focusing on this issue makes it possible to identify ways of improving the everyday safety and well-being of women in informal settlements through better design and management of facilities. It also has the potential to confront the gendered ideologies driving the reproduction of risk and violence in informal settlements.

We must grasp the urgency of taking action to combat the disproportionately hostile experiences facing many women when accessing sanitation, particularly in informal settlements.

The realisation of the right to sanitation is a necessary but insufficient step towards addressing gendered inequalities, not least the elimination of violence against women. But it is only by recognising the daily challenges facing women around the world that we can begin to address them.

 

Indefensible Space: Gender based violence and sanitation in informal settlements

is a Project implemented by the DPU and the Institute of Child Health, UCL, and SNEHA, Mumbai and supported by the Institute for Global Health/UCL Grand Challenges.

On Tuesday 24th March practitioners and academics will host a half day Colloquium exploring the issues relating to gender-based violence facing women in slums; there will be a first London screening of a participatory film produced with slum communities in Dharavi, Mumbai as part of the Project. Read more about the project and book your place in the audience today.


Notes:

  1. Chant, S. and McIlwaine, C. (2013). “Gender, Urban Development and the Politics of Space”, 4 June 2013.
  2. WaterAid and National Confederation of Dalit Organisations (2013). Research on the DFID-supported IPAP programme in India in five states (unpublished).

Chris Yap is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Urban Development Planning. He has worked with a number of organisations including the International Institute of Environment and Development, London International Development Centre, Pastoral and Environmental Network in the Horn of Africa, and Oxfam America on topics including the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda, communal and collective land tenure options for low income groups, participatory budgeting in a post-disaster context, community led-mapping and urban agriculture.

Why is it so tempting for livelihood projects to ignore poor people?

Julian H Walker9 February 2012

PHOTO: J. Walker

Approaches to development which prioritize economic growth have been consistently criticized on the basis of their trickle-down assumptions, and for losing sight of equality as an objective. An ongoing theme in international development, therefore, has been attempts to develop frameworks which ensure that the needs of poor women and men are understood, and catered for, in economic development and livelihood programming.  Yet all too often there seems to be a sort of slippage between the intention of such frameworks and their application, whereby, in practice, they are perversely used to justify the exclusion of poor people.

One anti-poverty framework which is currently in the ascendancy is the ‘Making Markets Work for the Poor’ (M4P) approach[1]. Championed by major donors such as the UK DfID and the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC), M4P was developed in part as a corrective to previous anti-poverty approaches, such as the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach, which,  while it had a strong emphasis on the strategies and assets of poor households, failed to robustly address the structural and institutional constraints that exclude poor women and men from accessing markets and employment.

In this light, the M4P approach explicitly aims to combine growth with active measures to ensure the access of the poor to markets. Its intention is to foster systemic change focused on the systems of entitlement and the (formal and informal) ‘rules’ or institutions that support or impede poor people’s access to and control over markets.

Over the last six months I, along with DPU associate Nadia Taher,  have been working with the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) in their South Caucasus Progamme[2] (which covers their development assistance activities in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia). This work builds on a long history of collaboration between the DPU and the SDC working on gender equality issues. In this case we are working with the SDC’s Gender and Governance advisor to bring a stronger gender equality focus to their work in the region.

One of the issues that we are addressing with the SDC team is how to make sure that the eight Economic Development and Employment (EDE) projects that they support in the South Caucasus (which have all been structured using the M4P approach) actively cater to the needs of poor women and men. These eight projects, reflecting the prevalence of poverty in remote rural areas in the South Caucasus, are all in the field of horticulture and animal husbandry, and attempt in different ways to connect village households dependent on farming to urban markets for their produce.

A critical issues here is that, not infrequently, the NGOs implementing these EDE  projects appear to be working in ways which sideline the inclusion and interests of the poor. Many of the project teams feel that they should primarily focus on support to existing private sector enterprises (including, in some cases, established international businesses), but are hesitant to work with the poorest women and men farmers or agricultural labourers.  Ironically, the justification for this approach is typically that to work directly with poor women and men would contravene the principles of the M4P framework, which proposes a ‘light touch’ facilitative approach, working with existing actors and processes, rather than interventions which create new processes and institutions, which are dependent on the project and may therefore be unsustainable. Whatever the justification, the outcome is odd for poverty focused projects when,  for example, it is seen as in keeping with the M4P framework  to purchase lorries for an established dairy processing business, while direct interventions such as support to the creation of cooperatives or famers associations, or start up grants or loans to poor households are disallowed on the basis that they are ‘unsustainable’.

In other cases, project interventions prioritize the interests of growth, but do not attempt to promote equitable access to the wealth created. For example one project focuses on supporting established businesses to develop fruit processing in high quality fruit value chains, arguing that this will create wage labour (casual agricultural labour and work in processing facilities), but envisages no interventions to support the rights and labour conditions of a casual agricultural labour force, despite the fact that this is a labour force which is notoriously vulnerable to poorly paid and exploitative working conditions.  Thus their interpretation of the systemic change envisaged by M4P appears to be about changing the systems of market access for medium sized business, while leaving the systems whereby agricultural labours are exploited untouched.

The SDC are aware of these issues, and, in response, have been stressing that there is space within the M4P framework for a more active, rights based interpretation. For example, they point out that the M4P approach advocates working with a full range of ‘market players’ – and, while it is important to work with the private sector in the interest of economic growth, rights based and pro-equality interventions also require working with other market players, specifically supporting civil society and government bodies working on issues related to labour rights, governance, and market regulation, or producers associations which protect the rights and negotiating capacity or women and men engaged in farming.

So why, in this case, is it that the application of pro-poor frameworks such as M4P often lead, in practice, to pro-business interventions which sideline the poor?  Is it that models of growth-led development are so embedded in our minds that we can’t take alternative forms of enterprise, such as cooperatives, or state regulated markets, seriously? Or that the ways in which the performance of economic development projects are measured (for example economic return on investment) mean that a truly pro-poor orientation will always score badly in the short term? Or that poor people are difficult to reach, because they don’t fit into neat organised associations which are easy to work with, and conform to the requirements of our framework? Or that dealing the institutions that underpin poverty requires confronting vested interests, and sensitive political structures that project teams feel are ‘out of reach’? Whatever the reason, it seem very clear that however sound frameworks  such as M4P are on paper, we need to apply constant critical scrutiny to what they deliver in practice, as they have a tendency to create a new logic all of their own when they hit the real world.


[1] http://www.m4phub.org/

[2] http://www.sdc.admin.ch/en/Home/Countries/Commonwealth_of_Independent_States_CIS/Southern_Caucasus_Georgia_Armenia_Azerbaijan