Breaking Barriers: Fighting Chile's Gender Inequality

Article excerpt

Michelle Bachelet is spurring a cultural and political revolution in Chile. As the country's first female president, she has already fulfilled her campaign promise to create Chile's first gender-balanced cabinet and is currently drafting a controversial quota law to increase female representation in Congress. Bachelet is an agnostic and single mother, and as a result, she is at first glance an unusual choice for the highest political office in South America's arguably most socially conservative country. Her commitment to alleviate Chile's severe social inequalities, however, resonates with many citizens and will help bring her country into the 21st century.

Bachelet's presidential message highlighted her aspiration to enable "women to fully participate as citizens." The current situation for women, however, is far from ideal. Few women participate in politics. As of 2005, only 2 of Chile's 38 senators are women, and the Chamber of Deputies is over 85 percent male. Chile's female labor force participation is particularly low at 38 percent compared to 44.7 percent in Latin America overall, and males still hold the vast majority of political and managerial positions. Consequently, the wage gap between men and women of equal employment and education is one of the highest in the world at 19 percent nationwide, and it is at 40 percent for employment requiring high levels of educational attainment. The gender inequality that underlies all these figures is a result of Chile's machismo culture, which assigns men and women profoundly different roles.

The lack of successful women in the public and private sectors has resulted in further disempowerment beyond the workforce. In a government survey, one in four married women reported physical abuse, and seven in ten reported psychological maltreatment. The Catholic Church's hold on matters of matrimony delayed the ratification of divorce laws until 2004. Now, more than 500,000 women are filing for divorce to escape maltreatment, but for many, low female employment levels make divorce unfeasible because they cannot financially support themselves.

Bachelet's electoral victory is a major step forward for the role of women in Chile. Not only is she the first female president, but she has also shaken up Chile's conservative culture with her gender-balanced cabinet. The cabinet has become a symbol of Bachelet's agenda for Chile, but it is not universally applauded. Ignacio Illanes, an analyst with the conservative think tank Liberty and Development, vehemently argues that the cabinet is "a grave error" and that "there's only one way to have a 50-50 cabinet and that is by lowering its quality." Illanes and others insist that Bachelet's decision will hamper Chile's successful economic growth and create instability through weak decision making. Bachelet assertively responds that women "make up a bit more than half the number of people enrolled in universities, and still there are people that have the nerve to make comments of that nature." Bachelet's poise and forthrightness in response to Chile's machismo culture and her own success story are themselves arguments for the further empowerment of women. …