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Chile's Feminist President

It’s over two and a half years since the appointment of Michelle Bachelet as Chile’s head of state – how has her presidency impacted women’s rights and gender equality?

 

By Rochelle Jones

 

On January 15 2006, Michelle Bachelet was elected as Chile’s first ever woman president. A single mother and self-confessed agnostic in a socially conservative country dominated by the Catholic Church, Bachelet represented a beacon of hope for women in Chile and indeed Latin America. Bachelet is not only the first female president in Chile’s history, she is notably “the first female president anywhere in Latin America who rose to political prominence without being linked through marriage to a high profile male leader.”[1] Her accession to power was met with an outpouring of emotion by Chilean women who celebrated this moment as the beginning of a tide of change. Over two and a half years into her term of office, has this tide swept over Chile as was hoped, and have women’s rights surged forward as part of it?

 

Tangible gains for women

 

Bachelet’s intentions regarding the status of women in Chile were clear from the beginning. Just weeks after being sworn in, she kept her campaign promise and named a Cabinet of 10 male and 10 female ministers – quite a precedent not only in Latin America, but globally. This was criticised by some as sacrificing quality for quantity, but these criticisms seem to have faded into the background given the government’s achievements to date.

 

Bachelet made other promises to women during her campaign, including “free preschool care for working mothers in the poorest 40 percent of the population, and a Non-Discrimination and Good Labor Practices Code for the public sector, with voluntary adoption for the private sector. She also promised to put an end to discrimination against women of childbearing age in private healthcare plans, and to create one million new jobs in the next four years with employment subsidies and job training programs, some targeted specifically to women and single mothers. Bachelet also called for stricter laws against domestic abuse, more protection for victims, and more victims-attention resources.”[2]

 

A year into her term, Bachelet had achieved a number of these promises:[3]

 

  • A law she called "just and beautiful" gave women the right to breast-feed at work.
  • Penalties were strengthened for men who fail to pay alimony.
  • Hundreds of nurseries were established nationwide, as well as domestic violence shelters for women and children.
  • Equal numbers of women and men now hold top administration jobs, including in her Cabinet.
  • Women were for the first time admitted at the naval academy.
  • Girls as young as 14 can get free morning-after contraceptive pills.

 

In August 2008, Bachelet was pushing an Equal Pay for Equal Work bill before the senate, and earlier in the year overhauled the private pension system, “expand[ing] public pensions to groups left out by private pensions - the poor and self-employed, housewives, street vendors and farmers who saved little for retirement - granting about a quarter of the nation's work force public pensions by 2012”[4].

 

Clearly the tides of change are flowing. Passing legislative reforms is one thing, but whether they have the desired effect is another. This is something that will take time to determine, and will most probably require evaluation and analysis beyond Bachelet’s term. What is important is that Bachelet has tenaciously surged forward with reforms for women, and has made good on her campaign promises.

 

As a free market socialist, Bachelet was criticised at the beginning of her term over potential contradictions between her women’s rights agenda and the neoliberal economic model promoted by the previous Lagos government that Bachelet supports. Franceschet argues, for example: “whereas the change that Bachelet represents is primarily a change in style and stereotypes about politics (due largely to her gender), a change that will undoubtedly benefit women, the continuity that Bachelet represents has more ambiguous implications for women. That’s because many of the sources of women’s inequality derive from Chile’s economic order and a development model that Bachelet is not likely to challenge.”[5] Renewed criticism in the current fiscal climate sees Bachelet criticised of “covering up the true extent to which the current global financial crisis is affecting Chile’s economy”[6] – a direct slating of neoliberal economics which has been tied to the undermining of women’s rights worldwide, but which Chile’s economic growth can also be attributed to.

 

The intangibles…

 

Despite criticism, Bachelet is a symbol of cultural change – and it is this, more subtle form of transformation that could see the most important gains for women’s rights. Women’s Affairs Minister Laura Albornoz has been quoted as saying: "We are undertaking changes that will probably not be totally apparent during this government, but later on"[7]. It’s not just the impact of her policies that will be seen further down the track: Bachelet won and has governed Chile with her own brand of politics – something particularly resonant amongst women because she is proof that women can succeed in a masculine political landscape without having to ‘act like a man’. The sentiment amongst commentators is that “Bachelet’s style of leadership, a style that viewed as more open and straightforward, is challenging existing ideas about how women in politics should behave, thereby removing some of the obstacles to women’s participation in the political arena.”[8]

 

Her open and participatory approach has seen her described as “a symbol of healing in a country long divided by ideology, class and competing versions of a tumultuous recent history”.[9] This type of leadership is important in boosting the confidence of the women’s movement in Chile, which has seen a decline in activism since the struggle for democracy.

 

Time will be the ultimate judge of Bachelet’s success as a feminist president, but her policies aimed towards women - coupled with her unique style of leadership – are a large part of the tide of social change creeping through Chile, transforming the spaces of persistent machismo.

 

 

 

[1] Bachelet’s Triumph and the Political Advance of Women. Susan Franceschet. www.nuso.org/upload/articulos/3333_2.pdf

[2] Bachelet era begins with change. By Jen Ross. The Christian Science Monitor. February 01, 2006. http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0201/p01s02-woam.html

[3] Chilean Women Make Gains Under Bachelet. By Eduardo Gallardo. The Associated Press. March 9, 2007. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/09/AR2007030900187_pf.html

[4]Chile's private pension system adds public payouts for poor. Eduardo Gallardo. International Herald Tribune. March 10, 2008. http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/03/10/business/pension.php

[5] Ibid Note 1.

[6] The Neoliberal Model Has Fallen. 09 October 2008. Santiago Times. http://www.santiagotimes.cl/santiagotimes/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=14829&Itemid=38

[7] Ibid Note 3.

[8] Ibid Note 1.

[9] Female, Agnostic and the Next Presidente? Heavy Favorite in Chilean Vote Cuts Against Grain. By Monte Reel. Washington Post Foreign Service. December 10, 2005. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/09/AR2005120902040.html

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Regions: Latin America

Topics: Equality & non-discrimination

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