In Chile, a feminist green wave rises

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Source: Red Pepper

The ‘estallido social’ (social explosion) that kicked off in October 2019 was the largest outpouring of discontent witnessed in Chile since the Pinochet era. While the initial protests were sparked by a seemingly innocuous 30-peso hike in metro fares, they have come to reflect a much deeper malaise with the country’s economic and political model. When Minister of Economy Juan Andrés Fontaine told working-class Chileans to get up earlier to avoid the new prices, the people retorted: ‘no son 30 pesos, son 30 años’ (‘it’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years’), referencing the three decades that have passed since Pinochet left office.

To this day, the harsh neoliberal model implemented by the Pinochet regime has remained virtually intact. Thanks to the actions of hundreds of thousands of protestors, however, change may finally be coming: in October 2020, an overwhelming majority of Chileans voted to replace the Pinochet era constitution, with the new one written by a body elected by the people. For many Chilean feminists, the moment presents an opportunity to constitutionally enshrine a fundamental right: women’s right to choose.


Women vs the state

The roots of Chile’s persisting gender inequality and denial of reproductive rights stem from the doldrums of the Pinochet regime. In a last act before the regime ended in 1990, Jaime Guzman – ‘godfather’ of Chile’s socio-political model and member of hard-line catholic sect, Opus Dei – helped to legally enshrine the rights of the foetus. Still today, Chilean women face five years in prison for receiving an abortion – one of the most draconian policies in the world.

The minimal steps made by former President Michelle Bachelet – who legalised abortion if there was risk to the life of the mother, if the foetus was unviable or if the pregnancy was a result of rape and no more than 12 weeks had passed – were met with furious opposition. Chile’s Catholic Church released an 18-page statement against decriminalised abortion, warning that the country would be fostering a ‘culture of death’. In 2018, President Sebastian Piñera rolled back this amendment by allowing medical professionals to object to abortion on religious grounds.

Still today, Chilean women face five years in prison for receiving an abortion

Now, spurred on by the success of the ‘estallido’, Chile’s feminist movement is fighting back. Andrea Alvarez from pro-abortion rights group Mesa de Acción por el Aborto en Chile told Red Pepper: ‘We are currently developing a bill for access to safe and free abortion. A coalition of groups including La Mesa, along with other feminists, are working with cross-party left-wing MPs to present this bill to parliament.’ That new bill would be a huge step in the right direction, although it is limited to the decriminalisation of abortion – it does not guarantee state provision of services.

Nevertheless, the campaign for reproductive rights faces major structural and legal obstacles. Minister of Women and Gender Equity Monica Zalaquett is a staunch anti-abortionist who challenged even Bachelet’s minor amendments to Pinochet’s abortion law. Zalaquett also controversially applauded the ‘bravery’ of an 11-year-old girl who had been raped and gave birth after being denied an abortion in 2013. When Piñera appointed Zalaquett in June 2020, it was to replace the even more controversial appointment of Macarena Santelices, Augusto Pinochet’s great-niece.

Chile’s current Minister of Social Development and Family, Karla Rubilar, further communicated the government’s hostile sentiment towards amendments to the existing law by declaring: ‘The government is against free abortion. where there is no reason other than the decision of the woman to be able to interrupt her pregnancy…. the government [view] on this matter is clear.’


A green tide rises

As Chile’s population has grown ever more disillusioned with traditional party politics, however, grassroots movements have grown from strength to strength. Chile’s feminists have gained monumental traction and played an instrumental role in the struggle to oust the stifling Pinochet constitution. Last March, one million women took to the streets in protest, with numbers expected to swell this year. The green bandana popularised by Argentinian feminists, who successfully campaigned to legalise abortion in 2020, has been adopted as their symbol of resistance, women’s rights and equality.

Alvarez explains: ‘When the network of Latin American feminists launched the green bandana campaign, we took it onboard in Chile. We have seen more and more women adopting this symbol, on the streets and public transport. It’s gaining strength particularly on key dates like the 8 March, International Women’s Day, and also featured strongly during the social uprising of 2019.’ She continues, highlighting the continental spread of the symbol: ‘We have staged various events like panuelazos [publicly wearing the green bandanas] to give greater visibility to abortion issues, not just here but across Latin America, each time gaining more support.’

Despite an overwhelming imbalance of power firmly weighted against the people of Chile in the legislature and judiciary, and a raft of new laws designed to criminalise dissent, a new generation of protesters remain defiant. While the Piñera administration will undoubtedly try to usurp the potential of the new constitution, his government will not quell the rising tide of Chile’s muscular, feminist green wave.

Carole Concha Bell is an Anglo-Chilean writer, founding member of the Chile Solidarity Network and Press Officer for Mapuche International Link

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