A most feminist year: how female voices were heard in Chile

SANTIAGO – Feminism has established itself as a slogan that reigns in conversations and social debates around the world. Chile, of course, is not the exception. With a movement that is gaining more allies, Chilean feminism has installed itself. Despite its long history, there is no doubt that 2018 was the most “feminist year”: female voices were heard, more brave and empowered than ever.

On International Women’s Day, women once again became visible protagonists, leading actions, social movements, and, ultimately, historical moments, which set a precedent for Chilean society.

It began as a movement of female university students, tired of an oppressive, macho, and patriarchal society. Their furious and incipient message would soon spread throughout the country as a rally cry, that cut across age, profession, education, and beliefs, and that sought unity, vindication, and, above all, equality.

Chile Today spoke with four different women and asked them:

“What does it mean to be a woman in Chile?”

Pascuala Ilabaca, singer

That question has no answer. There are ways of being a woman for those who do not accede to a [particular] life or who define themselves, and there are many individualized realities. In my experience as a singer-songwriter, a woman is the heir of a chain of misunderstood women.”

Ilabaca defines the feminist movement as “a volcano that just smokes,” because, in her opinion, “although there are many women very committed, there will be many more, and the process is slow because everyone is scared; women are a popular majority but a cultural minority.”

It’s not all doom and gloom. “The good thing is that Chile is changing,” says Ilabaca, pointing to her own business, music. “The maximum current music careers are women: Mon Laferte, Camila Gallardo, Paloma Mami, Denise Rosenthal—that’s great!”

2018: A most feminist year

The first few months of 2018 were relatively quiet in Chile; and then, suddenly, everything changed in April. ln the south, specifically in the city of Valdivia, students from the Universidad Austral raised their voices, with a great and powerful, “Enough!”

It all started when a circle of women who complained about sexual harassment and abuse initiated a feminist takeover of the university’s Humanities department to put pressure on the school for turning a blind eye on the alleged perpetrators.

Students elsewhere repeated the exercise, including at the prestigious Universidad de Chile, where students with similar complaints took over the law school.

The feminist university movement continued to grow, creating an unstoppable firestorm. More and more students joined in rejecting unanswered abuses. State or private, it made no difference: students were organizing everywhere.

Ultimately, students at more than three dozen institutions rose up with women in the lead, and the month came to be known as “Mayo feminista” (feminist May).

Mayo feminista had captured not only the buildings and the streets, but also the media. For weeks, the news devoured the stories of inequality and the other issues the “feminist wave” had put on the table.

Chile Today spoke with four different women and asked them:

“What does it mean to be a woman in Chile?”

Tiare Rodríguez, photographer

“Being a woman in Chile is knowing that you are going to do double the work. It’s knowing that you will always have a load that will not correspond to you. It’s a burden that comes from the trajectory, from your past, from a history of women who were doing twice as much work as they should have.”

Rodríguez, who has had various job opportunities in the field of advertising, has firsthand experience with the typically overly-macho environments in large agencies dominated by male bosses and characterized by “obtuse and super obsolete thought.”

But for the photographer and publicist there is hope, because “times have changed,” and if advertising does not change with them “it does not work, it remains obsolete.” She adds that the increased presence of women in advertising will put a stop to this. But, she says, the trend has to continue, “we have to keep it that way in order to end this toxic world,” says Rodríguez.

A historic march

In the midst of this social upheaval, a historic march took place on May 16, 2018. University students and many others joined the crusade. According to some accounts, nearly 200,000 people attended.

Dances, shouts, artistic actions, signs, and feminist unions were the mainstay of the march, but if there was one form of protest that most vividly illustrated the frustration and ire that underlies the movement it was a group of women who marched bare-chested with crimson hoods.

Photos, videos, and publications from the event have immortalized these women as a symbol of the effort to end the nonstop sexualization of the female body, one of the movement’s “fighting flags.”

May continued with numerous demonstrations and slogans in favor of women and gender equality, but no one expected to make history at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

And yet a group of students did just that. On May 22, they took over the school — something that hadn’t happened there in over 50 years. They did this to support the nationwide movement but also to demand that the university’s authorities likewise address the allegations of harassment and abuse within the university.

Chile Today spoke with four different women and asked them:

“What does it mean to be a woman in Chile?”

Consuelo Manosalba, Head of Education at Chile Today

“We have to do twice the effort of men to have the same freedom, because the man already has a position rooted in society and the woman has had to seek it by raising her voice.”

“In my experience,” says Manosalba, “within the academic world you have to put up with certain phrases to avoid conflicts or remain as conflictive. Women who work in universities have to face many things and many stereotypes. For example, I have heard comments, and perhaps I have participated in them, that when a teacher is more strict or rigid, it is assumed that she is lesbian.” She adds, “therefore it is still assumed that being part of this world, being more ‘rational’ or effective is assumed to be more masculine.”

In addition, Consuelo adds, women within the academic world have had to deal with being judged by their dress. “If you wear a skirt or shorts, they judge you. I have even heard comments of the type, ‘she believes that this is a brothel.’ ” But, she ads, “The clothes should not define us. Fine, everything has a context, but not because I wear a skirt or a dress I will be less capable. My clothes do not measure my intelligence.”

Unequal figures

Today, almost a year later, the feminist movement has evolved, and with it, Chileans. Nevertheless, gender inequality persists.

According to OECD figures, Chile occupies 5th place in the world among the countries with the highest salary difference between genders, with women earning 21.1% less than men.

Numbers from the National Institute of Statistics (INE) are consistent with the OECD’s. According to the 2017 figures, Chilean women earn 29.3% less than men. That’s about CLP $200,000 pesos (US $299) less in salary per month, for the same job.

It’s not just the amount of money. It’s also who’s managing it. According to INE, in 2017, 62.4% of the households were economically managed by men, while only 37.6% were managed by women; and 68.8% of  small businesses were managed by men, while only 39.2% were managed by women.

Chile Today spoke with four different women and asked them:

“What does it mean to be a woman in Chile?”

Rebecca Sepúlveda Carrasco, trade unionist

“Being a woman in Chile is difficult. Chile is intolerant. We live at a difficult time. We see how the number of women who are raped rises, killed by the people they trust, the ones they love. We are in a difficult transition. But at the same time, as a member of the younger generation, I have a greater openness to the movement and the changes that are necessary.”

The trade unionist stresses the importance of having women in positions of power, because, as she explains, “If there are no women in these positions, how are the issues going to be put on the table? How are changes going to be made?

“Most of the positions of power within the unions are men,” explains Sepúlveda. Although there are organizations that have a greater female presence, the position of president or director still remains with the men. “This is where the difficulty for women comes from: it is being able to occupy the positions of power.”

The labor participation rates are also quite different: 71.2% of men participate and only 48.5% of women.

The inequality also extends beyond financial matters. Something as simple as walking down the street is marked by significant differences. According to the INE, the ratio of women to men who are fearful in various circumstances is quite different: on the street it’s 116 women to only 100 men, at a bus stop it’s 121 to 100, riding public transportation it’s 133 to 100, and in a taxi it’s 156 to 100.

While these figures illustrate many of the inequalities in Chile, there is one that generates more noise than all the rest. This one isn’t directly tied to money or opportunity or fear. Instead, it’s a matter of life and death. It’s the femicide figure.

According to the Ministry of Women and Gender Equity, Femicide is defined as “the murder of a woman by a person who is or has been her husband or partner. This crime is the most extreme form of violence against women and is a sign that in our society it is still believed that men have the right to control the freedom and lives of women.”

The ministry lists 43 confirmed femicides in 2017, 42 in 2018, and already 10 in 2019.

Femicide in Chile: These ten women were killed in 2019

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