For the past five months, there have been no classes or teaching in many of Chile’s public universities. A feminist occupation, in protest against the misogynistic and abusive culture in many institutions, has disrupted the education system to force change.
The movement began on 17th April, in the Southern Chilean city of Valdivia, when students from the Universidad Austral (UACh) occupied its Faculty of Humanities and Philosophy to protest against the conduct towards the in disciplinary action against a lecturer found guilty of sexual harassment The movement has since spread across the rest of the institution, much of which has now been occupied for the past three weeks – 35 separate courses are now affected by the occupation.
The movement rapidly spread across the nation. On 27th April, less than two weeks after the UACh occupation, students took over the Law Faculty of the Universidad de Chile in Santiago, one of the country’s most prestigious academic institutions. Universities across the country are now occupied by students calling for change and demanding an end to sexism in education. Their demands range from ending the use of sexist language by teachers, to adding more female authors to module reading lists, to improving the internal protocols for reporting incidents of sexual abuse and harassment within institutions (complaints of which are often dismissed or long delayed in investigation).
In addition to demanding changes within affected universities, the feminist movement is also calling for changes to the law. In recent weeks, there have frequently been groups of protesters outside La Moneda (the Chilean Presidential Palace) calling on Chilean President, Sebastián Piñera (pictured below), to enact greater legal protections for women. Piñera has responded by promising to reform Article 1 of the Chilean constitution to establish the government’s responsibility to guarantee equal rights and opportunities for women and men and to combat any former of abuse or discrimination. He has also promised to urgently prioritise a number of initiatives aimed at combating gender-based violence currently going through the Chilean congress (including some originated by the Socialist government of his predecessor Michelle Bachelet).
Yet, the government response which perhaps most directly addresses the movement’s demands is the promulgation of a new law governing public universities which will establish the legal boundaries of the relationship that should exist between students and lecturers. The Chilean Ministry of Education will also develop a plan to assist universities and other educational institutions in promoting inclusion and preventing gender discrimination.
The demands of the occupiers also seem to have popular support, yet their methods attract varying degrees of opposition. According to a recent Cadem poll, while 71 per cent of respondents supported the movement’s demands and 65% were in favour of street marches, only 31 per cent supported the occupation of University buildings. 63 per cent of the women questioned as part of the survey also said that they themselves had experienced gender discrimination.
While some of the methods adopted by Chile’s new feminist movement may be controversial, the fact that many of their demands have such wide public support, and that the government has already promised to take action, shows the impact the movement is likely to have on Chilean politics over the next few years.