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CHILE: First Woman President Scores Points on Gender Front

Daniela Estrada* - IPS/TerraViva

SANTIAGO, Mar 2 2010 (IPS) - When Chile elected Michelle Bachelet as its first woman president in 2005, thousands of women celebrated the historic victory as their own personal triumph, proudly marching in the streets wearing mock presidential sashes. Today, men and women both recognise the concrete and symbolic progress achieved in gender issues under her administration.

President Michelle Bachelet greeted warmly by supporters. Credit: Alex Ibáñez/Presidencia de Chile

President Michelle Bachelet greeted warmly by supporters. Credit: Alex Ibáñez/Presidencia de Chile

At the end of her term on Mar. 11, Bachelet will be stepping down with a tremendous level of popularity: 83 percent, a record in her country, and almost unheard of in the rest of the world.

The inauguration of rightwing President-elect Sebastián Piñera that day will close a chapter in the history of this South American country of 17 million people, governed by the centre-left coalition Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia since the return to democracy in 1990.

As a result of the gender equity policies implemented by the Bachelet administration, Chile will be the Latin American country with the most gains to show at the Mar. 1-12 meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, in which governments will gather in New York for the 15-year review of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action adopted in 1995 at the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in the Chinese capital.

One of the 12 priorities established by the Platform of Action was furthering women's participation in politics and decision-making processes.

Bachelet is a leading example to the world of what political power in the hands of a woman can mean in terms of the advancement of women in general.

The benefits gained by women through the 2008 social security reform – such as the basic retirement pension for poor homemakers who never had formal employment and the bonus granted for each child – are among the main achievements of Bachelet's efforts to advance gender equality.

Another legacy of the socialist president, a social activist since her youth who was imprisoned and tortured by the Augusto Pinochet military dictatorship (1973-1990), is the Integral Protection System for Early Childhood "Chile Crece Contigo" (Chile Grows With You), which provides support for parents and children from the child's conception through age four.

Other major gains for women include the large number of free day care centres and nursery schools established throughout the country, which have given women more freedom to enter the labour market, and a law aimed at bridging the gender wage gap, which also grants labour benefits to domestic workers.

"The Bachelet administration was just one more step in the progress that has been made in gender equity issues by the four Concertación governments" over the past 20 years, political scientist María de los Ángeles Fernández, who is writing a book on Bachelet's political leadership, told TerraViva.

But while Bachelet is not alone in her efforts, the 59-year-old paediatrician has made a contribution that is critical on several levels, Fernández said.

"Symbolically, she has been a role model for children, as having a woman president expands the horizon of opportunities available to women," said Fernández, who is the executive director of Fundación Chile 21.

Moreover, by repeatedly bringing up "women's issues in her public addresses, she elevated them to the status of state policy, while in Latin America these issues have traditionally been considered as second to the economy and defence policies," she said. "Protecting the women of Chile is my duty," is one of the statements by Bachelet that Fernández highlights as best representing her.

According to the political scientist, Bachelet also gave visibility to women by naming the same number of female as well as male ministers in choosing the members of her cabinet, which at the end of her term still has almost 45 percent female representation, despite numerous reshuffles.

Her concern for achieving equal representation of women was already evident when she headed the health and defence ministries during the government of Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006).

"As defence minister, one of the issues she focused on was the incorporation of women into all three arms," Fernández said.

Some politicians and political analysts have attributed her popularity to her friendly and open nature and her close contact with the people.

A rightwing leader described her as an "affable housewife," and in July 2009, Patricio Navia, a researcher with Chile's Diego Portales University and New York University, wrote an opinion column calling Bachelet's government a "cariñocracia," playing with the Spanish word for "affection" and the suffix for "rule."

"Chileans are sexist, and at first they treated her badly because she was a woman, but now everyone applauds her" because "they realised that she's a very capable woman and she's done everything right," Nelson Carrizo, a 57-year-old flower vendor, told TerraViva.

Pilar Montoya, a 43-year-old secretary with right-leaning views, thought that because she was a woman Bachelet would not be able to overcome the problems she faced at the start of her term. "She did such a good job she surprised us all," this mother of two told TerraViva, adding that she's "proud" of how Bachelet represented her country abroad.

As soon as she came into office Bachelet had to deal with conflicts on several fronts, including dismantling the failed Transantiago transportation programme, designed for the capital by the previous administration, and solving a number of major protests by students and other social sectors.

When she came under harsh criticism for her alleged lack of leadership, Bachelet employed the word applied to gender-motivated homicides and said she was a victim of "political femicide," a form of public image slaying.

Bachelet took a horizontal approach to governing, often creating advisory committees with the participation of all the relevant stakeholders, towards streamlining the drafting and implementation of public policies.

She will also be remembered for her efficient management of government finances, which allowed the state to save a portion of the earnings derived from the high international price of copper – Chile's leading export product – and use it to provide cash benefits to the lowest-income families when the country began to feel the effects of the global financial crisis in 2009.

"With the implementation of (Bachelet's) 'gender agenda,' Chilean women's organisations have finally achieved what has been a long-standing demand: putting women's issues on the public agenda," National Women's Service Minister Carmen Andrade told TerraViva.

For Andrade, the mainstreaming of this cross-cutting issue throughout the country's public policies cannot merely be explained by the fact that Bachelet is a woman; it was only possible because she's "a woman committed to furthering social and gender issues."

Andrade highlights Bachelet's capacity to turn the concrete problems faced by common people into "public policies, programmes and actions."

While making an overall positive assessment of Bachelet's administration, the women's movement finds it lacking in two areas: the implementation of an integral policy to address domestic and sexual violence, including prevention measures, and guaranteeing women's full enjoyment of sexual and reproductive rights.

Bachelet made emergency contraceptive, or 'morning-after,' pills freely available to all women over the age of 14 through public health facilities, but due to pressure from conservative elements within her own coalition, she was unable to push for the decriminalisation of therapeutic abortion.

Chile is one of the few countries in the world where abortions are illegal under any circumstances, even when the mother’s life is at risk.

Other pending issues are the expansion of women's political participation and the redistribution of economic power.

"Today, for the first time ever, the participation of women in Chile's labour market has broken through the 40 percent ceiling, but women continue to be concentrated in certain occupations, which are the worst paid, and there are still almost no women in corporate management positions," Andrade said.

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