Chilean women make gains under Bachelet, but discrimination remains


Chile’s first female president has made tangible strides toward improving the status of women in her first year of office, increasing their role in politics, providing the right to breast-feed in the workplace and offering greater protection against domestic violence. But much remains to be done in this conservative country where women often earn up to 30 percent less than men, administration officials say. The election in January 2006 of socialist Michelle Bachelet, a separated mother of three, to Chile’s highest office gave women across Latin America cause for hope that the region’s macho ways were changing. Back home, it filled women with pride: “Chile is no longer our fatherland — it’s our motherland” became a popular refrain. A physician by training, Bachelet embraced gender issues from the get-go, announcing in her first state-of-the-nation address last May that “my government will fight with all its capacity for the full exercise of women’s rights.” And indeed, her administration can point to a number of gains for women since she took office last March 11: _A law she called “just and beautiful” gave women the right to breast-feed at work. _A law stiffened the penalties for men who fail to pay alimony. _Hundreds of nurseries have been established nationwide, as well as domestic violence shelters for women and children. _Equal numbers of women and men are now serving in top administration jobs, including her Cabinet. _Women were for the first time admitted at the naval academy. And yet at least one initiative touted as pro-woman — a program offering free morning-after contraceptive pills to girls as young as 14 — was implemented only after stiff resistance from the Roman Catholic Church and conservatives who called it a form of abortion. Enacted as a presidential decree by Bachelet, the program triggered heated debate in a country considered politically liberal but socially conservative. Chile prohibits abortion in all cases. Some conservative mayors have refused to let their city health services distribute the morning-after pill, including Pablo Zalaquet of La Florida, near Santiago, who called Bachelet’s decree “a black day for our country, a slap to the institution of family.” Women’s Affairs Minister Laura Albornoz told The Associated Press that Bachelet — the only South American woman to have won the presidency without riding the coattails of a powerful husband — seeks to improve women’s standing in society in a permanent way. “We are undertaking changes that will probably not be totally apparent during this government, but later on,” she said. “What we want is to establish policies that will remain after Bachelet leaves the presidency.” Albornoz acknowledged that women in this country, which only legalized divorce in 2004, still have a long way to go to escape domestic violence and discrimination at work. Lydia Alvarez, who works at homes for the elderly, said she has been turned down twice for jobs because she refused to submit to a pregnancy test. Such a request, although illegal, is common practice, women say. “They tell you they are not supposed to ask for the test, but they do anyway,” Alvarez said. “If you’re pregnant, goodbye!” Women’s groups have targeted Chile’s law against domestic violence, which defines abuse as repeated and habitual. “When a woman finally proves that, much time has passed,” said Soledad Granados, who is working on the campaign and estimates that the average domestic violence case takes seven years to reach a court. One of Bachelet’s outstanding campaign promises is to improve women’s salaries, which are as much as 33 percent lower than those of men for the same work, according to the International Labor Organization. Helping more women enter the workplace is another goal: Women’s average work participation in Chile is just 37.5 percent, compared with 47 percent for Latin America. Women still lag far behind men in politics. While they account for 52.5 percent of Chile’s 8 million registered voters, they hold only 12 percent of seats in Congress. Bachelet has promised to correct that and is preparing a bill that would force political parties to reserve for women 30 percent of their slate of candidates in congressional and municipal elections. Whether the bill will be passed by the male-dominated Congress remains to be seen. Moreover, Bachelet’s coattails are no longer what they once were; a poll released this week put her approval ratings at below 50 percent as the one-year anniversary of her inauguration approaches. The rating is attributed largely to the rough roll-out of a new transportation system in the Chilean capital of Santiago. Still the gains made for women in less than a year are undeniable, said Virginia Guzman, a psychologist and sociologist with the Center for Studies of Women Affairs. “There is general feeling among women of having developed a greater personal value,” she said.