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Chile: women challenging stereotypes


In a country dominated by males, especially in politics, four women are challenging the stereotypes in Chile. As well as Michelle Bachelet, now elected president for a second term, Carolina Tohá, Bárbara Figueroa and Melissa Sepúlveda occupy positions of power that could lead to many other Chilean women taking up the fight against gender inequality.

This is all the more remarkable because Chile is ranked among the worst countries in terms of gender inequality in the region.

According to The Global Gender Gap Report 2013 compiled by the World Economic Forum, Chile has fallen in just two years from 46th to 91th position out of a total of 136 countries. GenderGap_Report_2013.pdf

This contrasts with the information from the rest of countries in South America and the Caribbean, where the gender gap has been reduced by 70 %.

New symbols

Michelle Bachelet, 62, who takes office in March 2014, was the first woman to be elected president of Chile when she first came to power in 2006. When she left La Moneda in 2010 she enjoyed a popular support rating of over 80% despite the widespread disillusionment of Chilean people with their politicians.

Michele Bachelet. Photo: Wikimedia/Alex ProimosFor her second period as president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet has promised a wide-ranging reform of the education system, a tax reform and a new constitution.

The proposed new constitution directly recognizes gender equality, urges the State to eradicate stereotypes about a ‘superior gender’ and, among other measures, establishes a target of 40% of board seats in public companies being held by women

Some critics within Chile have questioned that the new Bachelet cabinet only has nine women against fourteen men, while in 2006 there was gender parity.

During Bachelet’s first term, Carolina Tohá, 48, the current mayor of the municipality of Santiago de Chile, was one of those female ministers. Tohá won a symbolic victory in 2012 when she defeated Pablo Zalaquett, and won back control of  city hall after twelve years ruled by the right-wing UDI.

Bachelet and Tohá also share a sad past as their fathers –Alberto Bachelet and José Tohá- were both members of the Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) government headed by the socialist Salvador Allende in the seventies who were killed at the beginning of the military dictatorship in1974.

Carolina Toha. Photo: dialogaconsultores.comOn International Women’s Day in 2013, Carolina Tohá said  that she agreed with a quota law in politics. “Where there are quota mechanisms the gender gap is reduced far faster than there where there are no mechanisms. After a while a standardization process begins and these measures are not necessary. If someone expects history to resolve these differences it could take centuries”.

Ms. Tohá told El País newspaper that in Chile ‘machismo and traditional attitudes among the elites and the media are putting the brake on changes that are urgent.’ In the last Congress, she pointed out, only 14% of the members were women. ‘We have to promote public policies that feminize the exercise of power’.

Women leading social movements

Bárbara Figueroa, 34, has achieved another first: she became the first female leader of a major trade union movement in the whole of Latin America when she was elected as the head of the largest union confederation of Chile, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores in 2012.

Barbara FigueroaSince taking over as the leader of the CUT, Ms. Figueroa, of the Communist party,  has been trying to recover some of the labour rights such as collective bargaining lost during the Pinochet dictatorship. She has also led calls for a higher minimum wage and has joined the student demonstrations to demand widespread social reforms.

In interviews, she has spoken of the difficulties of being a single mother as well as a full-time trade unionist, and of the fight she has had to counteract machismo, especially from older trade union leaders.

The youngest and most radical of this group of women leaders is Melissa Sepúlveda, a medical student, feminist and anarchist, who is the president of the powerful Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile (University of Chile Student Federation).

Ms. Sepúlveda has said that she will work to ensure that the changes in the system of higher education demanded by students over the past three years will bring ‘real transformations, whoever is governing’.

Some politicians in Chile have questioned whether the students or trade unions and social movements will continue their protests now that a left-wing government is returning to power.

However, these three women in positions of power are likely to make sure their voices are heard in many areas of Chilean society.

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