“Chilean women have articulated their demands, and built a remarkable movement around them,” Professor Jennifer Pribble.
Hundreds of thousands of women marched in Santiago de Chile in a new commemoration of International Women’s Day’s this past March 8, 2020. Celebrating International Women’s Day, the women gathered in massive numbers displaying slogans alluding to gender violence and social inequality. The banners carried by the women referenced wage and social gaps. Through massive convocations, the women marched to the capital to demonstrate and demand social change that eradicates machismo and promotes gender equality in every way. Latina Republic interviewed Chilean expert, Associate Professor of Political Science and Global Studies at the University of Richmond, Jennifer Pribble, to understand the context behind the historical women’s march in Chile.
Latina Republic: How does your professional background connect you to Chile?
I found my way to Chile right after my undergraduate degree. I had studied Latin American studies and I was really interested in democratization. This was the mid to late 90s. Chile was sort of new in its return to democracy. I decided I wanted to go live there, so I moved there after I finished my undergraduate degree and I lived there for two years. This was right about the time that president Ricardo Lagos came to power, the first socialist president after President Allende. I was working as a journalist at the time and reporting on the Lagos administration.
It was quite striking to me to see this new democracy that had such a legacy of mobilization and left-leaning demands for social justice. At the time it was very de-mobilized; what characterized the Lagos administration was very measured reforms. I decided I wanted to study the topic and went back to complete my PhD.
This was right at the start of the left turn in Latin America. I wanted to research left parties in Latin America and make Chile the centerpiece for understanding what happened to the left and what the left was trying to do; specifically, to what extent was the left pushing Chile in the direction of a social democracy and universalism.
I spent a year and a half in the field during my PhD, and I interviewed 75 political leaders in Chile and another 75 in Uruguay. This inspired the writing of a book comparing the two countries through the lens of the left. I have lived in Chile for about 4 years in total, and I continue to visit the country, regularly. I have a very strong connection to Chile.
It has been a fascinating place to see change unfold, especially during the past 15 years. It has been especially interesting to watch Chile move from a period of relative political apathy to a state of tremendous collective action, where Chileans make their demands visible and mobilized; this is what we are seeing play out today, and really intensely since last October.
Latina Republic: What are the various motives that led Chilean women to march on International Women’s Day?
One year ago, today, Chile saw a huge mobilization estimated around 800,000 and 1,000,000 women. It was one of the largest mobilizations that Chile had seen since its return to democracy. It predated all the uprisings that began in October 2019 and underscored a strong feminist component to the protest movement. I think the things that drive women to march today in Chile, overlap and intersect with the multiple demands we’ve seen issued since October, when the Chile Despertó movement really started to bloom. I see at least two dimensions to the protesters’ demands.
The first is a political dimension, and it’s a demand to move toward a political system that is more inclusive, that is more responsive. I think there is a tremendous frustration on the part of Chileans in general that the system is very oligarchic, very elitist. It hasn’t made space for young people, and especially, young women, to move up through the ranks and take positions of power, and have their demands, their issues articulated in the political arena in important ways. This is a demand that you can see transversely across Chile. But I think among women, and especially, young women, it is felt very acutely that the kinds of issues that are important to them, have just been left off the agenda.
Even after having had a female president, twice, nothing seemed to shift dramatically on that front, so I think the one dimension that drives them to march is political. I think there is a socio-economic dimension as well, which is driven by frustration with an economic model and a social model system that leave huge swaths of society very vulnerable and, if protected, under-protected.
In Chile, some groups don’t have access to social benefits. A large portion of society does have access to pensions, and health plans, but the protections that they receive are so weak that they feel as if they are teetering on the edge of poverty or bankruptcy, as in the case of healthcare. There is a strong sense of frustration with a system that has generated huge inequality. Some of the inequities women feel are economic, but there are also racial and gendered inequalities that drive women to march and to protest in demand of change.
That frustration is rooted in the fact that Chile’s welfare state was dramatically liberalized under the Pinochet regime. Health care was partially privatized; the pensions’ system was fully privatized, the education system was moved to a “school choice” model, and all these things expanded the private sector, reduced the role of the state, and minimized the role of solidarity in the welfare system.
The center-left governments that ruled Chile during the Concentración governments that ruled for roughly 20 years after the transition, did reform certain elements of the social welfare system, like education and pensions, but they reformed at the margins without addressing the structures of the Pinochet reform. So, the pension system remained privatized though they expanded access to noncontributory pensions. The vulnerabilities and inequalities persisted.
I think for women what is notable is that there are significant inequalities built into the pension and private health care system. If we look at women on average (not just in Chile, but everywhere), because of gendered norms and caretaking responsibilities, women tend to exit and enter the labor market more regularly than their male peers. So, if they are saving for their pensions in a private account, their pensions are regularly interrupted. Which means that over the course of their lives, they save less. And because women are paid less on the dollar than men, for equal work, they also save less. What this creates is a big gender gap in terms of the size of private pensions and the ability of women to save enough to arrive at the minimum pension value in Chile.
One thing the Chilean government did in the 2008 pension reform is they gave a credit to women who exited the labor market to care for children. They subsidized those contributions. But other forms of inequality persist. If you look at earnings’ inequality, women are much more likely to work in the informal sector. Which means they are probably not contributing at all to pensions.
In health care there are also important gender inequalities. The Chilean private insurance companies are very unregulated. For years they didn’t cover women’s health issues. There was a common term in Chile, “insurance without a uterus,” which meant quite literally that they didn’t cover the cost of becoming pregnant and this wasn’t illegal. If you didn’t read the fine print you might not know that. So, women’s access to care and the kinds of care that women rely on has been weaker in Chile overall, especially in the private sector.
I think these issues are driving Chileans at large, and women in particular, to protest for change. There is also a third dimension, which is a feminist dimension. Frustrations in addition to these dimensions are driving women to mobilize. What we’ve seen is that this has been growing over the last years.
After the student movement emerged in 2011, we witnessed feminists and college students engaging in tomas at the universities, demanding that universities come up with policies for sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus. These moves spiraled into a larger feminist movement that was tied into the ni una menos movement which demanded an address of the high rates of femicide and violence against women.
Feminist demands have been tied to concerns about femicides and violence against women, and to frustration about the lack of reproductive rights in Chile. During the second Bachelet government abortion was legalized only in the case of rape, incest and the mother’s life being in danger. These are the only instances that make it legal, however abortion remains very hard to access in Chile in those instances particularly for low income women.
Finally, and this is more of a recent demand, Chilean women want a greater representation in politics, in positions of power in the private sector, and in the university sector. They have articulated these demands, and built a remarkable movement around them.
Latina Republic: Why do Latin Americans have a culture of mobilizing, publicizing discontent through mass protests in the streets? Why don’t we do the same in the U.S.?
That is the question of the day, and it’s never been more clear that if we compare the Ni Una Menos movement with the Me Too movement in the US. Me Too was more individualized, as women were encouraged to tell their story. Collectively, in the U.S. we don’t band together to demand a change in the system.
Latin America is first and foremost, collective in terms of protests and discontent. Latin Americans have a recognition that: “working on my own, I won’t change anything. The way we achieve change, is to work together, because the one thing we have is numbers.”
If you look at Latin America, especially in the southern cone’s democratic experiences, and compare them to the U.S., they are very different. In Chile’s 30s, 40s, 50s we saw that collective mobilizations made big accomplishments in the social front. This was the result of an emergent social welfare system, labor market regulations, and greater incorporation of people into politics.
South Americans have more experience with collective mobilization. In the case of Chile, it is a less diverse country, in terms of ethnic and racial diversity, that we see in the U.S. Sociologists’ work points to how diversity can bring divisions inside of social movements. There are different cleavages that are dividing groups.
I also think that collective action feeds upon itself. When you see victories, it encourages more of the same. If you look at Chile in the 1990s nobody was organizing or mobilizing. It was striking to live there in the 90’s, because this was the country of the Allende experiment and that was really hard to believe.
In 2011, when students started organizing, everyone watched them and said, “look at what they have been able to do.” They were able to bring Santiago to a standstill, to sit down with the president; they were able to force the government to engage in an education reform that albeit imperfect, was something.
From that, you see the feminist movement emerge; from that, you see this huge movement that starts in October and November. Finally, I think it’s important to note that the left in many parts of Latin America has a deeper and stronger tradition. We never saw a strong left party in the U.S. We have a single member electoral system that has tended to produce these two broad parties. By contrast in Latin American there is a history of strong, radical left movements that established an agenda and a vision from the left that people could mobilize and organize around.
Latina Republic: Can you comment on immigrant women’s experiences in Chile? How do they connect to the women’s protest movement?
I’m not an expert in migration, per se, but as someone who has been living in Chile on and off since the mid to late 90s, you can visually notice and feel, culturally and socially, that immigration has increased and that foreign-born people make up a larger share of the population than they did in the ‘90s. There has been growth from neighboring countries, but also an expansion from further away, such as Haiti. The change has happened without public policy responses.
In the last election, we saw the far right led by Jose Antonio Kast, try to politicize this issue and talk about building a wall. Chile is not immune to this upsurge in nationalism and a tendency for this to be a white nationalism. We see that playing out in Chile in ways that, I think, are troubling.
You can see some of this far-right sentiment present in the ongoing cycle of protests and counter protests. We saw huge crowds gather to support the demands for a new constitution and an expanded welfare state, but there have also been right-wing counter protests. In Providencia this past weekend we saw a march organized against the new constitution. Some participants were marching wrapped in confederate flags. Those individuals make clear that there are links between the far-right in Chile and the white nationalist movement in the U.S.
Latina Republic: As a political scientist have you observed positive changes implemented in other parts of world to facilitate the adaptation of immigrants into a country?
Welfare states have 3 predominant ways in which they provide access to benefits. One, is as a right of citizenship or residence. This is what we think of as the universal welfare state, which guarantees access to child care, access to health care, etc. for all citizens or residents. A second way, is what we call as contributory welfare states, where you get access because you are a formal sector worker who pays a payroll taxes and as a result you get access to unemployment, insurance, health care and a pension when you are too old to work. The third way, is through targeting. This mechanism is common in residual welfare states. This targeting tends to direct benefits to the poorest or neediest sectors in society. Many Latin American countries, historically, had contributory welfare systems, which mimicked the welfare states of continental Europe. In the Latin American context, however, these welfare systems never provided full coverage because of the large informal sector.
In the 80s, during the wave of neoliberal reforms, Latin American countries started to use more social policy targeting. Neither targeting nor contributory welfare systems are effective at reaching immigrants. Because in Chile and Latin America, immigrant women tend to work outside of the formal sector. So contributory benefits are not going to help them. Targeting wouldn’t work either, because immigrants can’t vote so politicians are not likely not target benefits to that group.
The best-case scenario for reaching immigrants are universal welfare states that provide access to benefits as a right of citizenship or residency. Unfortunately, such systems can be used as tools to politicize anti-immigrant sentiment. I think that moving Latin America toward universalism is the best opportunity to expand access and improve the quality of public services.
The protest movement does intersect with immigrant interests. The movement in Chile is so disaggregated, so decentralized that there is room for all kinds of demands. Still, though, there’s a downside to this decentralization as well. While immigrant demands might side with other demands, it is unclear if they will be forged together as a political coalition.
Latina Republic: The new constitution will be written by 50% of women. Will bringing in an equal share of women into the constitutional drafting process lead to more inclusivity regarding the issues driving women to march?
The mechanism that was approved by the Chilean parliament is historic. They mandated that a constitutional convention provide gender parity, with 50% women and 50% men. It’s a huge victory that could introduce constitutional issues that, otherwise, would not have been explored. This process will give greater legitimacy to the constitution as well.
Chile needs a new constitution because the current one was written by Pinochet. I think the gender parity issue is extremely promising. It is likely to put issues on the table like equal rights amendments and guarantees for social rights that are of particular interest to women.
Women are very attuned to the ways that rules about elections, rules about candidate nominations, and the rules about primaries can be written in ways that push women out. Thus, women’s presence at the table might allow for new systems that hedge against these problems.
We’ve had lots of constitutional reforms in Latin America, but non that have guaranteed gender parity in the convention’s election process. This will be very interesting to watch how it plays out.
Latina Republic: It will be interesting to see who the women writers will be. Will the group be broad and representative, or are we going to have a political leniency, a class tendency?
Latin America has experimented with gender quotas in parliament. We’ve had several women elected as president, and we’ve seen that it doesn’t necessarily translate to radical changes or policy changes. There is the case of Cristina Kirchner who was not originally swayed by the abortion arguments and has evolved over time, and today, she supports the decriminalization of abortion in Argentina.
Women in Chile have tended to vote more strongly for conservative parties, than men have. This is especially true in the years immediately following the dictatorship. But we’ve seen a real shift in public opinion during recent years. Of course, women do not think uniformly, just like any group, but they may be leading a move toward more progressive politics.
Latina Republic: When thinking about all the progress Latin American women have accomplished, why is femicide, the lingering and terrible, social problem?
As a political scientist looking at variations across Latin America one thing jumps out: that the rates are highest in central America. We know that Central America is a sub-region with especially weak states that have difficulty enforcing the rule of law. Police and the judicial system are often captured by criminal elements. And this is a huge problem in addressing domestic violence, prosecuting it and reducing its rates. People don’t trust the institutions to protect them or to investigate crimes, so we have a situation where women are fending for themselves. And what they are doing is migrating; they are fleeing.
Latina Republic: There is a high level of impunity where cases are dismissed at the highest levels of the courts. There is a fear of retaliation and of feeling unprotected. Is this the right political time for the women’s movement in Chile to really take off and to accomplish some tangible goals?
In the Chilean case, I move between moments of great hope and moments of worry. On the one hand, I am uplifted by these remarkable women who have organized themselves and are able to pull 1 million plus people into the streets, and who are able to capture the national attention and articulate their demands. I think this is a moment when they have a great deal of power.
But it is also a moment when the political system has been completely delegitimized. And that includes all the parties. There is a complete lack of political trust.
You have all of these demands by the women, but you do not have a political system capable of channeling the demands. You do not have political parties tied to these movements. Who will reach out to the movements? Who will be the leader, the party that turns women’s demands into legislation? And on the side of the movements, you have a huge distrust that the parties won’t follow through with what they say they will do.
While I am very hopeful about these demands, I am worried that Chile has backed itself into a corner, and the current political system as it stands, is unable to respond to these demands. I do think this is the moment, but I don’t know if Chile’s party system, if its democracy as it is currently organized has the legitimacy and the capacity to turn those demands into concrete gains. I think that a new constitution is very important in that regard. It could bring greater legitimacy to the political institutions and actors. But in the meantime, people could grow frustrated because they are looking for responses right now. That’s why I think there needs to be movement on two fronts.
There needs to be movement on the constitutional front, but we also need to begin to rebuild trust. We need parties to move legislation through congress aimed at addressing the social demands. This will send a signal to social movements that politicians hear them and that they are trying to respond. Otherwise, we are in a cycle of protests that at times can give us a great deal of hope but aren’t yet producing concrete outcomes.
Latina Republic: It’s like we have these two parallel forces growing without a bridge. There is the hope embedded in the new constitution and all that it could entail, and then there are all the protests movements. But what has yet to be built is a bridge that connects both forces and helps them coalesce into a united front.
The fear is that the new constitution won’t materialize fast enough and frustrated groups may turn to extra institutional mechanisms out of impatience.
Latina republic: There are a lot of good ideas, but the leaders have yet to be identified.
This is where I really think that the parties have work to do. In a sense, this is a historic opportunity for the parties to rebuild themselves and reach out and engage in a broad social dialogue. At this time, the social movements are amorphous, decentralized, yet they are very strong. We need actors to bring them together and channel a political response.
Jenny Pribble | Associate Professor & Chilean Expert
Jenny Pribble is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Global Studies at the University of Richmond. Her research focuses on issues of comparative political economy and her book, Welfare and Party Politics in Latin America (2013, Cambridge University Press) investigates why some Latin American states have been more effective than others at expanding social policies. Jenny has lived in several Latin American countries, but most extensively in Chile. Her new research project analyzes subnational variation in the quality of public health services in Chile. Her research has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including Latin American Politics and Society, the American Sociological Review, Comparative Politics, and Studies in Comparative International Development, among others. She received her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.