Sexuality Policy Watch

#NoTenemosMinistra: The crisis in Chile’s Ministry of Women and Gender Equality

By Bárbara Sepúlveda Hales & Lieta Vivaldi Macho

The recent appointment of the new Minister of Women and Gender Equality, Macarena Santelices, by President Sebastián Piñera is very worrying and this has been expressed not only by feminist organizations but also by politicians and activists from different sectors. After 54 days without an incumbent minister due to the resignation of the previous minister, Isabel Plá, this appointment was made generating an immediate response from civil society through the hashtag “we have no minister”, which became viral in Chile due to its lack of representation and the dangers it represents.

We say dangers in many ways because reasons abound: in a context of crisis, a strong Ministry of Women and Gender Equality is needed with adequate political and technical responses. The Piñera government continues to operate under the logic that the Ministry of Women and Gender Equality is a second rate Ministry, which is demonstrated by the appointment for the second time of a minister who has neither background on gender studies nor any experience in this area and, therefore, can hardly play a role that requires not only specialized preparation, but also a transformative political will. In this regard, it should be recalled that the former Minister Isabel Plá resigned from her post after an appeal against her in the National Congress, proposed by a coalition of feminist organizations for her negligence in conducting a proper gender policy and the defenselessness in which she left thousands of women victims of violence, in addition to the neglect of dozens of victims (girls, boys, women, LGBTIQ+ and men) of sexual violence committed by State agents (police and military). Furthermore, considering the level of complexity of a phenomena such as inequality and gender based violence, we cannot forget that assuming the role of Minister of Women and Gender Equality also implies complying with international commitments and standards already assumed, compliance with which, in the face of the government’s laziness and negligence, falls unfailingly to civil society organizations.

As was seen on social media during the last few days, Santelices has publicly ignored the importance of human rights: not only has she questioned the demands that have been widely raised in Chile since last October 18th endorsing state repression, but she has also ignored and relativized the human rights violations that occurred during the dictatorship.  Finally, feminists know the damage that the anti-gender movement has done in reaching positions of power so a minister with these characteristics is definitely dangerous.

We are undoubtedly at a critical moment: in the context of a pandemic like Covid-19, those who are most affected are women, children and adolescents and LGBTIQ+ , which is exacerbated if they belong to certain historically vulnerable groups either by race, age, ethnicity, social class, among others. Unfortunately, we have seen levels of violence increase dramatically during the pandemic. In Chile, since the beginning of the health crisis, calls to the 1455 helpline of the National Service for Women and Gender Equality, available 24 hours a day for women, increased by 125%. On the other hand, the compatibility of paid work and domestic work has also put women in a situation of great inequality, as they bear the greatest burden. This is even worse if we consider the informal and precarious jobs that are mostly performed by women and in which there have been more layoffs or those women who continue to perform them, must leave their homes without adequate protection exposing themselves to contagion. In Chile, 42.4 per cent of households are headed by a woman (CASEN 2017), representing almost 50 per cent of households in the poorest quintile and 9.2 per cent below the poverty line, where one third of women have no independent income. The State has come late to implement solutions or to prevent situations either of violence or to recognize the injustices that we women and sexual dissidents suffer because of an androcentric and unequal system. Since the pandemic, some avenues have been opened up to strengthen protection from violence, but these are still insufficient. Santelices asked to be judged by her actions and not by her past. However, two days after her appointment, she showed total ignorance and lack of sensitivity to the needs of women who have suffered violence, when she publicly visited (with cameras and journalists) a Women’s Centre, which are places reserved for women who arrive in situations of serious violation of their rights.

In Chile the feminist movements are very strong and have organized at different levels. The feminist May 2018 generated a revolution that started from questioning the educational model for perpetuating gender stereotypes, inequalities and allowing situations of abuse, to a strong criticism of different areas of our society, including the legal system and justice operators. The recent demonstrations that began last October with the rise in the subway fare have their roots in years of deepening the neoliberal model imposed under the dictatorship. One of the consequences of the social explosion was to start the process to change the current Constitution that was fraudulently approved during the dictatorship and written by a small group of non-democratically elected people. The need to change it lies, among other things, in being able to guarantee economic, social and cultural rights, change our model to a social state based on the rule of law, peer organizations, and that specific rights of women and sexual dissidents are recognized: equal pay, recognition of domestic work, the right to housing, living a life free of violence, sexual and reproductive health, among many others. The feminist movements have been key to this process. The impact of the performance of The Theses is an example of this. However, since the social explosion in Chile, systematic human rights violations have occurred by the State and special forces to the general population and in particular women and sexual dissidents who have suffered sexual and other types of violence. The previous minister was largely absent from the defence of women’s rights during this period. Santelices, for his part, has declared and publicly demonstrated contempt for human rights: he has put the serious violations that occurred under the dictatorship into perspective and has denounced the demands that have been raised since last October.

The arrival of a woman with these characteristics in such a key position leads us to fear due to the similar scenarios in which North and South American countries such as the United States and Brazil find themselves. Anti-gender movements are articulate and critical of any questioning of what they consider to be “natural differences” between men and women. In the United States, for example, the Department of Health under the Trump administration has defined that gender would be determined “on a clear, scientifically established, objective and manageable biological basis. This defines gender according to the genitals they are born with in a clear violation of the rights of transgender people. Bolsonaro, for his part, has spoken out publicly against the so-called “gender ideology” and taken concrete steps that affect sexual and reproductive rights in different ways. In Chile, the UDI, the party that Santelices represents, has also proposed initiatives along similar lines.

As noted, the role of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs is key. We cannot leave it in the hands of a woman without preparation and respect for human rights. That is why we feminist organizations say strongly: We do not have a minister.

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