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CHILE: Progress for Women, But Still a Yawning Gap

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Mar 6 2009 (IPS) - With one year to go in office, women’s groups and civil society organisations report positively on Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s government policies to promote gender equity. But there is still much to be done, they say.

“In all fairness, we must say there is a positive feeling about the work on women’s rights done by the Bachelet administration,” Lorena Fries, the president of the Humanas Corporation, told IPS.

“But there is clearly a debt to women which has existed since long before (the president took office, on Mar. 11, 2006), which unfortunately has not been fully repaid,” said the lawyer.

This seems to be the general feeling as women’s groups in Chile prepare to observe International Women’s Day on Sunday, one year before Bachelet, the first woman president in this country of 16.6 million people, is due to step down.

“The most positive thing is that no previous government has ever taken the issues of equality and non-discrimination against women so seriously. The president has constantly kept the topic in the public eye and has given it her full backing. It has been given priority treatment unlike ever before,” Teresa Valdés, the coordinator of the Gender and Equity Observatory, told IPS.

One of the main achievements was the reform of the pension system in 2008, which provides a range of benefits for women, especially for those at the lowest income levels.

Sixty-eight-year-old Alejandra Zúñiga is one of these women. After working all her life as a homemaker, last year she applied for the new basic solidarity pension of 60,000 pesos (97 dollars) a month introduced by the reform. To her surprise, she was selected to receive the pension.

“I think what she (Bachelet) has done for homemakers is excellent. No president has ever helped us so much before. I am grateful to the president,” she told IPS.

As for 34-year-old Elba Verdugo, she welcomes the new bonus for each child and looks forward to receiving it when she retires. She has three children, the eldest of whom is 18 and the youngest one year old.

Although she cannot recall any other specific gender equity policy implemented by the president that has benefited her directly, in Verdugo’s view Bachelet’s presidency has created “greater opportunities for women,” she told IPS.

“I would say that our agenda on gender, which the government is developing in an integrated way across sectors, has fulfilled most of its goals,” the Minister for the National Women’s Service (SERNAM), Laura Albornoz, told IPS.

In addition to pension reform, women’s organisations appreciate the support given to mothers in Chile. The number of crèches has been significantly increased, as has preschool education coverage, and the government has created an integrated social protection system for early childhood, Chile Crece Contigo (Chile Grows With You), which supports parents and children from gestation to the age of four years.

A breastfeeding law, expanding the rights of working women to nurse their infants under the age of two during working hours, was enacted in early 2007, and laws were tightened to ensure that fathers who do not live with their children support them with maintenance payments.

Similarly, laws have been approved providing resting periods for women working in shops and stores, and improving pay conditions for domestic workers in private homes to match those of other waged workers.

Valdés also mentioned initiatives that may appear to be of lesser importance, like government backing for participation in sports by girls and women. According to the sociologist, these public policies are “strategic” and their results will only be seen in the medium to long term.

Fighting domestic violence is another area where progress has been made, with awareness-raising campaigns and the opening of battered women shelters. However, murders of women continue to occur. Organisations are calling for more resources and an integrated approach, with coordination between the different institutions involved.

In spite of these achievements, the list of pending issues is a long one. The Humanas Corporation’s Fries only mentioned three: the failure to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the absence of a quota law to promote political participation by women, and the lack of equal rights within marriage and the family.

Legislative priorities for this year in fact include a draft law on a balance between men and women candidates for elected positions, to ensure greater equity in political participation, and a draft law on marital economic regimes, which modifies the current law on conjugal partnerships, the minister said.

However, the initiatives face resistance from some lawmakers in both the rightwing opposition alliance and the centre-left coalition that supports Bachelet.

Albornoz said that during the three years of the Bachelet administration, women’s rights issues have enjoyed “enthusiastic parliamentary support.” But Fries and Valdés, in contrast, say that Congress and the political parties are among those responsible for Chile’s lag in terms of women’s rights.

Another issue that has been long resisted and postponed in the country is full recognition of women’s sexual and reproductive rights, the women interviewed by IPS agreed.

In 2006, the government tried to make free emergency contraceptives available to every woman at public health centres, but this move was banned by the Constitutional Court on the grounds that the contraceptive, known as the “morning-after pill,” might be an abortifacient and therefore violate the constitutional right to life, although the World Helath Organisation (WHO) has declared that this is not the case.

Women’s organisations have also unsuccessfully requested the government to take urgent steps to approve a framework law on sexual and reproductive rights that has been shelved in parliament since the year 2000. While Minister Albornoz told IPS that SERNAM “supports” the draft law, she confirmed that it is not considered “urgent.”

Women are demanding new laws on therapeutic abortion, which was made a criminal offence in Chile in 1989 under the 1973-1990 dictatorship of the late General Augusto Pinochet. But this thorny issue is not even part of the present government programme.

One of the most critical voices against the government’s gender policies is that of Alicia Muñoz, the president of the National Association of Rural and Indigenous Women (ANAMURI), who complains that Bachelet has never agreed to meet with the organisation, despite a number of requests.

“We could talk, in general terms, of some progress, but not all the changes that women need have been made. Those that have gone through are superficial changes that do not solve the fundamental problems,” the head of ANAMURI, which has 10,000 members across the country, told IPS.

In the case of female agricultural labourers, who are exposed to precarious working conditions, there is a “historical debt” which remains unpaid to this day, Muñoz said.

Many of these women’s demands, she said, are the same as those of all workers in Chile: creating more favourable conditions for collective bargaining and unions, abandoning the neoliberal free-market model of development, and strengthening democracy.

As the country prepares to celebrate another International Women’s Day, lesbian and transsexual members of the non-governmental Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation (MOVILH) sent a letter to SERNAM requesting that the “historic debt” owed to them be made good.

These women, who constantly report discrimination and violation of their rights in the workplace and educational establishments, and in raising their children, are asking for public policies to make their community more visible in society and to improve their living conditions.

One draft law which may be passed this year, according to Minister Albornoz, deals with the gap in salaries between men and women doing the same job. At present, women are paid between 30 and 40 percent less than men for the same work.

Looking to the future, Valdés said she fears that the progress achieved in gender equity during the Bachelet administration may not be continued by the next government.

“I don’t think it will happen across the board. But I am concerned about women’s access to positions of political power. This has met with a lot of resistance, and the departure of the president might even mark the end of her most symbolic measure, the gender parity of the cabinet she appointed,” said Fries.

“We do not have an institutional mechanism to guarantee gender parity. Women’s presence at local level and in parliament is a disgrace in comparison with Latin American standards. We might take a step backwards here,” she said.

According to Fries, the main political actors during 2009, when parliamentary and presidential elections will be held, should be the citizens of Chile themselves.

“This year, those who have to take a prominent part are the organisations and the people, because we already know how to make decisions on how to vote, and we can insist that candidates, whatever their political affiliations, respond to the interests and demands of women,” she concluded.

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