Constitutional Process NATIONAL

What the Constitution Says About: Women’s Rights

October is here and Chileans are about to commemorate the onset of the social crisis a year ago on Oct. 18, and vote on a new constitution on Oct. 25, feeling both tense and hopeful. Against this backdrop, Chile Today interviewed a national feminist organization coordinator to know what the current constitution says on gender issues. She also expressed her expectations on the constitutional process.

Oct. 18, 2019 is a date Chileans will remember for decades. A social crisis erupted that night, as hundreds of civilians joined forces to demand a more just society. Some protests led to violence: demonstrators burned buildings, looted supermarkets, and destroyed several metro stations.

“I live really close to the Estadio Nacional metro station, so I was there when it happened … I saw how people destroyed the property. They threw rocks, broke cameras and windows, threw down fences. It was shocking. I never judged them for what they were doing; it was just very impressive. Nothing was ever the same again,” said Priscila González.

González is one of the national coordinators of the Red Chilena Contra la Violencia Hacia las Mujeres (Chilean Network Against Violence Towards Women). The organization has been working to eradicate violence against women and girls since 1990.

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The social uprising championed several demands that had been in the public sphere for decades. Ending Pinochet’s constitution was one of the few that stuck. In an attempt to calm the protests, President Sebastián Piñera called for a referendum to decide if a new constitution should be written. A year later, the date for the vote is fast approaching.

On Oct. 25, Chileans will have to vote for “Apruebo” (as in Yes to the rewriting of the Constitution) or “Rechazo” (as in No to changing the current Constitution). Apart from those options, citizens will also have to decide if, in case Apruebo wins, they want to write the Constitution through a mixed convention (made up in equal parts by members of Congress and others elected by citizens) or a constitutional convention (where all members would be elected by citizens).

The feminist organization which González is a part of, reached a consensus on Oct. 5, on what to vote. In a statement, the network explained the need to “eliminate once and for all the dictatorial ties established in the current Constitution.” This means the people that make up the organization will vote for Apruebo and a constitutional convention.

“We believe this can change people’s lives, especially for women. But we understand that voting is just one of several steps we’ll have to take. We need to continue mobilizing,” said González.

A Life Free of Violence

The main goal of the network is that all women can live a life free of violence. When asked if the current Constitution has provisions that prevent women from achieving that goal, González talked about the subsidiary state.

The principle of subsidiarity has caused controversy over several issues between the right and left wings. It implies that the state should not intervene when smaller organizations can effectively fix a problem. The state should only act if necessary.

The right-wing sections of society tend to defend the subsidiarity principle because it gives non-state groups autonomy to do their business without interference from the state. The left-wing factions, however, tend to criticize the model, arguing, for example, that community associations do not have the same power as larger business associations; therefore, not all groups are equally capable of functioning without support from the state.

The right to live a life free of violence should not be subject to what private institutions want. Right now, the state only takes over when the private sectors can’t take care of an issue. Many instances of institutional violence against women arise from the subsidiary state, as it allows for third parties to be in charge of public programs that should be monitored by the state.”

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“These Institutions Don’t Take Care of Women”

González touched upon another issue that the feminists believe should be discussed during the constitutional process: an overhaul of the armed forces. “These institutions don’t take care of women. They are not qualified to receive complaints, and they even cover up acts of violence. That generates and perpetuates systemic violence against women.”

Parity of representation in an eventual new constitution is a must for González, but she views it as a minimum. “That is just the beginning. We want to see feminists participating in the constitutional process and, if political parties present women candidates [for the constitutional convention] just to meet the parity requirements, we think that is just empty symbolism. We need feminists who will not perpetuate what already exists.”

When asked about something that needs to be addressed, regardless of the outcome of the referendum, González mentioned the need to rush legislation on the bill for “a life free of violence” for women. The bill was put forward by former President Michelle Bachelet and seeks to carry out broad legislation on violence against women and girls that would define the obligations of the state in gender-based violence cases and help investigate and punish those who commit acts of violence against women.

“For us, the current legislation is deficient and very fragmented. On the one hand, we have the femicide law, on the other, the domestic violence law; both running on separate lanes. A fragmented vision is not enough. We need a broader law that addresses all issues. For example, it should have a program aimed at eradicating gender-based violence, and provisions that prohibit aggressors from holding public office … This law would make policy makers in Chile finally understand that violence against women is a cultural and social problem.”

González emphasized the need to have an anti-patriarchal constitution that encompasses all the issues related to gender-based violence. As for her hopes for the referendum, she expects the Apruebo option to prevail “with a significant majority.”

In the coming years, González hopes for a society where people are willing to talk to each other without violence. “I would like a Chile where the word feminist is not used as an insult. I want us to be a society willing to work towards a life free of violence … for everyone.”

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