Chile’s new constitution is a historic victory for women

Chile’s new constitution is a historic victory for women

Chile is electing its first constitutional assembly to have equal numbers of men and women this weekend, something that no other country has ever done before. Here NADJA speaks to 3 Chilean women about the events that have led to this historical moment. 

When students protested the metro fare hike in Chile two years ago, little did they know that they would unleash a chain of events that would ultimately result in a new constitution and a historical win for Chilean women. 

As social unrest grew throughout the country in 2019, it forced the government to hold a referendum in October last year to decide whether a new constitution should be drafted. Chile overwhelmingly voted this through,  choosing to have a fully elected constitutional assembly with gender parity – making Chile the first country in the world to have a constitution drafted by an equal number of women and men.

“This is a global milestone, and it’s the result of a struggle that shows that the feminist coalition is a successful example of political mobilisation,” comments Constanza Núñez Donald, a human rights lawyer based in capital city Santiago. 

The making of a constitution, and the constitution itself, reflect the times of a society, she explains. “This phase of our history is deeply marked by feminism and its potential for change. If, for the first time, we have the opportunity to democratically change the rules of the game, we have to recognise that women were also part of the catalyst that has brought us to this moment.” 

The 4-cent metro fare hike that sparked unrest 

In October 2019, student protests ignited in the capital over a 3.75 per cent metro fare increase, which raised the price of a ride by 30 pesos, or $0.04. This may seem small, but it’s an amount that matters for low-income families who tend to spend between 13 and 28 per cent of their budgets on transport

It quickly became a symbol of how the nation’s political elite were out of touch with the needs of everyday Chileans. The demonstrations soon turned into a nationwide movement to protest inequality and the high cost of living, prompting President Sebastián Piñera to announce a state of emergency, with a nightly curfew and the military patrolling the streets. 

It didn’t do much to quell the unrest. After a week, on October 25, 1.2 million people gathered in Santiago, in the largest protest in the nation’s history, demanding Piñera’s resignation.

Dr Andrea Gartenlaub is a lecturer and researcher at the Autonomous University of Chile and member of Red de Politólogas, a project to promote the work of female political scientists in Latin America. She explains that the announcement of a referendum to replace the 1980 Constitution, created during General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, was a symbolic way for the political elite to calm down the social movement and put an end to the unrest.

“Within a few days, a strategic move by the politicians and mass media turned the social discontent into a new desire: to change the old Chilean Constitution,” Gartenlaub tells us. “The other measures, such as raising the minimum wage, were quickly put aside in an attempt to change the focus of the public opinion during these turbulent days”.

The existing Constitution, drafted without popular input, not only represents Chile’s link to its military rule, but is also largely blamed for preventing change.

“Our country is one of the most unequal in Latin America,” explains Núñez Donald. “Pinochet’s Constitution has promoted structures of inequality by enshrining a neoliberal economic model and leaving little space for political debate, giving the president disproportionate power.” 

Pinochet rose to power in 1973 after a military coup, and remained there for 17 years. His free-market model and privatisation of social sectors such as healthcare, education and pensions, helped Chile to become one of the more prosperous and stable countries in Latin America but also one with the most socioeconomic inequality. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America estimated in 2019 that nearly a quarter of its total income goes to 1 per cent of Chile’s population. It is no wonder that 78 per cent of the voters said “yes” to rewriting the constitution last year. 

Women and politics

“When we talk about equally participating in the constitutional process, we are not only requesting to be part of the status quo,” explains Núñez Donald. “We are demanding a foot in the door to change and transform the foundations of our democracy.”

“Women’s participation in politics in Chile has been hampered by inequality, stereotypes and violence, which reflect the structural discrimination in the spheres of power. To have a gender-balanced body that will write the new Constitution is a victory, and a step forward to begin removing the structures that prevent women’s participation in politics.”

This is a sentiment shared by Claudia Cifuentes-Donald, a statistician who also lives in Santiago. “This is a recognition that there is no fair participation of women in the political space,” she tells us. “When we think of politics in Chile, we think of men. When we think about women in politics, there are only a few that come to mind and they are always strong women who have suffered a terrible public scrutiny. Their personal and romantic life is investigated, there are talks about what they wear. And they are usually women who come from political and economic elite families.”

“This election is an opportunity to bring to light the work of many women activists, professionals and academics that tend to be made invisible. It breaks with the idea that we don’t participate in these spaces because there aren’t enough competent women.” 

Although Chile is one of a few countries to have elected a woman as president, gender inequality in politics is persistent. 

“In spite of having important role models for women in our history, and Dr. Michelle Bachelet’s two terms as President, it has not helped to increase the participation of women in the public spheres,” Gartenlaub tells us. “Less than 25% of Chilean MPs are women. In the Lower House, 35 of the 155 deputies are women, and in the Senate, just over ten senators of the 43 are women.” 

Gartenlaub explains that, with the new electoral law adopted in 2015 which states that neither the male candidates nor the female candidates may exceed sixty per cent of the candidates for parliamentary elections, they had expected political parties would have at least 40% of women candidates. “When the measure was implemented for the current period 2018-2022, the number of women MPs elected and senators increased by 7% compared to the previous elections. Maybe the performance of the female candidates will be better in the next elections.”

New constitution, new hopes

“Athough a new constitution is not a ‘magical solution’ for the problem of women’s oppression, it’s an opportunity to develop a feminist perspective that will inspire and lead the government,” Núñez Donald says. A feminist constitution, she tells us, is one that enshrines equality between men and women, making parity the principle of social organisation both in the public and privates spheres, and that confers certain rights to women, including reproductive rights and the right to a life free of violence.

Equality is at the heart of Chileans’ demands and it goes beyond women’s rights. “A gender sensitive approach must be applied across various issues,” Cifuentes-Donald says. For her, the new constitution should reflect the values of Chile today: “A constitution that is written for all, and includes women, LGBTQ communities, Indigenous people and minorities who have not been considered in our country for decades.”

“I think that the key changes expected from the new Chilean Constitution are centered around three axes: a state model, a law model and a political model,” Núñez Donald explains.

“Concerning the state, we aspire to transition from a liberal to a social model, meaning that the government has a more active role in creating the conditions and removing the obstacles for a substantive equality.”

“Regarding the law, we hope to have a charter of fundamental rights that recognises the rights specific to population groups that have been historically discriminated against, in particular people with disabilities, children and teenagers and Indigenous people. It should also confer economic, social and cultural rights that guarantee minimum standards for a decent life.”

“And as to the political model, Chilean citizens have expressed their need for more civic participation, so I hope the new Constitution will strengthen democracy, enhancing mechanisms for citizen participation and limiting the concentration of power.”

With the new constitution, Chileans have high hopes to create a more equal society, one that will see women rise above gender divisions.

“Parity in the drafting of the constitution is a major milestone for future generations,” says Cifuentes-Donald. “They will grow up seeing women claiming their place, and filling decision-making positions.”

Alia Chebbab


Featured image: Protests in Chile, 04 November 2019. Photo: NandoCC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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