Chilean President Michelle Bachelet's New Mandate Has A Gender Agenda
FRIDAY FILE – In December 2013 Michelle Bachelet won a landslide victory in the first ever presidential race between two women candidates, giving her a second term in the top decision making position in Chile. AWID spoke to feminist Sociologist Teresa Valdés, Coordinator for Chile's Gender and Equity Watch, about women's expectations and challenges to be addressed.
By Gabby De Cicco
AWID: What were some of the challenges in President Michelle Bachelet's first mandate (2006-2010) according to the women’s movement and feminist activists?
Teresa Valdés (TV): Bachelet's first administration happened in a context of democratic deficit manifested by an electoral system where both majorities and minorities were not represented and the left was excluded. The authoritarian dispositions in the Political Constitution that originated during the military dictatorshipremained.
In this context, the challenges she faced included women's under-representation in elected positions and a growing crisis within the political alliances (Alliance of Parties for Democracy) supporting her, as several MPs abandoned the Alliance weakening her support in Parliament. Male chauvinism on the part of her allies made her pay a heavy price for her decision to have gender equity in her Cabinet and to give many women access to positions that the parties in the Alliance had reserved for men. Other challenges were the weakness of civil society organizations and of citizen’s involvement in politics; the concentration of property in a few hands; and, the lack of pluralism in the media.
Some sectors of the feminist movement criticized different aspects of her government. The main criticisms were that her program did not represent a substantive departure from the Neoliberal economic model dominant in the country; her failure to decriminalize abortion and the fact that she did not identify as a feminist. The management of Servicio Nacional de la Mujer(SERNAM, National Women's Service) was also criticized, as was the performance of some conservative parties within the Alliance that hampered many advances for the sexual and reproductive rights agenda and also in the area of political participation, that is, women's political and bodily autonomy.
AWID: What expectations do Chilean feminist activists and the women's movement have for President Bachelet's new mandate?
TV: Feminist strategies in Chile are diverse, and so is the acceptance or rejection of this new Bachelet administration. For young feminists, this is just another government that will continue to uphold Neoliberal policies and thus lacks an effective commitment to transformations that will eliminate gender-based discrimination and overcome inequality in its different forms.
Other feminist expressions value the structural reforms the government has pledged, such as developing a new Political Constitution that will include gender equality, economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR), sexual and reproductive rights (SRR), a change in the State's subsidiary role in the economy and in public policies. For some sectors of the feminist movement, the fact that the government wants to decriminalize abortion when the mother's life is at risk, the fetus is not viable and/or the pregnancy is the result of rape, is a positive development. Pobladorasmassively support the President and trust her ability to take forward the changes she has committed to introduce in her government program. For older women, this trust originates from the fact that the pension reform, recognition of domestic work, and of motherhood, have begun to change their lives. The lives of younger women, students and working women who have children, are also being made easier by the network of crèches and kindergartens from the Chile grows with you programme
AWID: As feminists, what are the key issues that you think President Bachelet needs to address in her new administration?
TV: The main issues are - democratically drafting a new Constitution that fully includes women's equality, parity and human rights; developing comprehensive laws to address sexual and reproductive rights; decriminalizing abortion under all circumstances; developing and implementing laws that criminalize violence against women, not only within the family but also in the broader society, with effective policies to prevent it and to protect women's rights and laws that recognize same-sex marriage and diverse gender identities are also needed.
AWID: Bachelet submitted an electoral system bill to promote greater participation of women in politics. What do you think of this bill? What is really needed to achieve this greater participation?
TV: A bill to reform the electoral system inherited by the Dictatorship, that privileges the minorityhas recently been approved by a Deputies’ Chamber committee. This bill includes a gender parity clause obliging parties to include no more than 60% of candidates of a single gender on their lists of parliamentary candidates. It also allocates a greater budget for elected women Parliamentarians. This provides a great opportunity, not only to have a more representative electoral system, but also to take a quantum leap in terms of women's representation in Parliament.
However, the women's movement is also convinced that this reform will not in itself guarantee a larger women's involvement in representative bodies. There are barriers that are not being addressed in a comprehensive manner. Reforms must also address how political parties operate; ensure resources to train women leaders and guarantee equal opportunities to campaign through public funding for political activities; and policies to harmonize work and family life that can modify the current distribution of reproductive labor.
AWID: Can you tell us about the bills to decriminalize abortion currently being considered?
TV: There are three bills on decriminalizing abortion being considered by the Parliament right now – submitted by individual MPs without the Executive's support, one in the Chamber of Deputies and two before the Senate. All include reinstating therapeutic abortion that was legal until 1989, when the Pinochet dictatorship eliminated it, and that add the unviability of the fetus and pregnancy as a result of rape, as grounds for legal abortion. There are only minor differences between these bills. However, the women's movement’s aspiration is to see recognition of women's right to decide on their reproductive life, eliminating all forms of criminalization. Also, based on the experience of other countries in the region (Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay), we want to guarantee that abortions are performed in public hospitals as a way to secure the exercise of this right.
AWID: There has also been talk about submitting a bill on sexual and reproductive rights in general. What is the situation concerning these rights in Chile?
TV: In fact, the women's movement has been advocating for a comprehensive law on sexual and reproductive rights for more than ten years. Up to now this has not been realized even though, since the 60s, there have been fertility control policies in place, starting from adolescence.
It was only in early 2010, when President Bachelet was about to conclude her first mandate, that the Law 201418 - recognizing the right to receive information, education, orientation and to freely seek a method to regulate fertility, including emergency contraception, and affirming the State's obligation to guarantee sexuality education in high schools - was passed. But this law fails to offer a framework for protecting, recognizing, guaranteeing and promoting the full exercise of people's sexual and reproductive rights - the right to sexual freedom, to bodily and psychological integrity, that is, the rights to freely decide about one's sexuality, to bodily autonomy and control, and to not be subjected to any form of sexual coercion, abuse, torture or violence.
A main advantage of having a comprehensive law is to open up public discussion on the right of every person to a satisfying sexuality, free from the risk of unwanted pregnancy and of contracting a sexually transmitted infection, while also making visible the diversity and legitimacy of ways to express one's sexuality. In Chile, the presence of "de-facto" non-democratic powers - particularly churches and the media controlled by Conservative business groups - has made it impossible to discuss these issues. What prevails is a denial of sexuality, while society itself has been evolving towards its acknowledgement.
AWID: Do you think that now Bachelet will be able to lead a break away from those conservative barriers?
TV: Her government program is the result of a political agreement between the center and left forces that came together as Nueva Mayoría (New Majority). It includes decriminalizing abortion under the three circumstances already mentioned and also a comprehensive law on sexual and reproductive rights. The most recent public opinion surveys shows that there is considerable citizen support for both initiatives, which allows for conjecturing that they will be discussed and passed by Parliament, even if with difficulties. Also the fact that this discussion has opened up three years before the next electoral campaign decreases the pressure that Churches (Catholic and Evangelical) can place on different candidates.
We can say that the fact of the President having pushed for and lead the new UN Women translates into a political program that includes many issues from the feminist agenda, and also that in her public speeches she constantly makes reference to having a gender agenda in her program.
 Women at lower socio-economic level
 After being defeated in the 1988 Referendum, the military dictatorship imposed an electoral system in which it is only possible to elect 2 representatives from each district/circumscription. It is a system that benefits the minority. For the most voted list to obtain both positions, it must receive twice the number of votes of the second list, meaning a list needs to receive over 66,7% of total votes to be guaranteed both seats.
 The current law on funding electoral campaigns (presidential and legislative) reimburses parties - or independent candidates - a certain amount for each vote obtained. The proposed amendment is that, in the case of elected women, this amount is increased so not only are the campaign costs reimbursed but also those parties nominating women for districts and positions to which they are likely to be elected, are rewarded.
 In Chile, MPs are able to submit "motions to the Parliament" but, as the Parliamentary system has a strong presidential bias, it is the Executive that assigns the status of "simple" or "major" priority to those motions. Parliamentary committee chairs can include these motions in their agenda, but - unless the Executive "sponsors" them - their progress can be very slow. The Executive tends to sponsor motions but only after having modified them, so their final shape is always defined by the President. In the issue discussed here, it is not yet clear if the President will combine the three motions already submitted or draft her own proposal.