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In Chile, women politicians rise, but women's rights lag

Chilean voters today will pick between two politicians in the first presidential election in Latin America where all the candidates are female.

By Steven BodzinCorrespondent / December 15, 2013

This combination photo shows Chilean presidential candidates Evelyn Matthei (l.) and Michelle Bachelet in Santiago, Chile. Both candidates are pushing for greater attention to domestic violence and wider public child care, and have reason to hype their support for women in this campaign.

Maglio Perez/Reuters

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“In Chile, the skirt’s in charge,” blared the headline of Santiago tabloid La Cuarta the day after Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei advanced to a second round in the country’s presidential race. Voters today will pick between the two life-long politicians in the first presidential election in Latin America where all the candidates are female.

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But having such high-profile women in Chilean politics masks a country that is falling behind its peers on women’s issues. Women’s groups hope that whoever wins, four years with a female in charge can change that, even though former President Bachelet’s prior term frustrated her more ambitious supporters.

“Chile remains one of the Latin American countries with the fewest women in Congress,” says Alejandra Sepúlveda, executive director of ComunidadMujer, a Santiago-based group promoting female participation in politics and business. She says women earn 30 percent less than men, a difference driven by women being responsible for the great bulk of caretaking for children and the elderly here. 

Both candidates are pushing for greater attention to domestic violence and wider public child care, and have reason to hype their support for women in this campaign. Females make up a slight majority of registered voters and have routinely higher voter turnout than men, according to the country’s elections authority.

Bachelet, who served as president from 2006 to 2010, was her country’s first female president, leading a wave that spread to Argentina, Costa Rica, and Brazil. Barred from immediate reelection, she then went to New York as the first leader of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, or UN Women. She is now favored to win the presidency, having won 47 percent of the first-round vote, to Ms. Matthei’s 25 percent.
 But hopes for women’s advancement under the next president are tempered by the knowledge that Bachelet had limited success in her first term.

“Having two women candidates fighting for the presidency of Chile is a major achievement, but it doesn’t guarantee equal rights,” Ms. Sepúlveda says.

Bachelet provided housing benefits to single mothers and ensured that half her cabinet was made up of women. But she tried and failed to pass a law to boost the number of women in the legislature. And though Bachelet won a law guaranteeing equal pay for equal work, it turned out to be toothless, says Sepúlveda.

Matthei, who served as labor minister in the current administration of President Sebastian Piñera, boasts of having expanded the country’s paid leave for new parents to six months from three and having funded free preschool for poor children.

People in the US might look longingly at a country with six months of paid post-natal leave and state funding for preschools, but compared with the rest of Latin America, Chile has started to lag.

More than a dozen countries in the region have a quota limiting the dominance of either sex in national legislatures or administrations. Colombia, for example, requires that at least 30 percent of its top government positions be held by women.

And the World Economic Forum says Chile’s ranking on women’s equality tumbled to 91st place this year, from 46th in 2011, thanks in large part to one of the world’s worst wage gaps.

Sepúlveda says women hold just 1 percent of board of director seats in companies in Chile’s benchmark IPSA stock index, compared to about 12 percent across industrialized markets and 36 percent in Norway, according to GMI Ratings’ annual global survey of women on boards.

“Until it’s recognized that real equal opportunity comes from men and women sharing responsibility for both work and family, it’s likely that this gap will remain,” Supulveda says.

Having a female president can affect decision-making on issues such as pensions, where a purely free-market solution punishes women who spend less time in the workforce, says Marcela Rios, a political scientist in charge of the governance program at the United Nations Development Program in Santiago. And a UN study found that “having women as president did make a difference in terms of policy issues,” Ms. Rios says. “Women did bring issues to table, especially issues traditionally seen as female.”

But no women’s issue is trickier for these candidates than abortion.
 Chile is one of just five countries in the world where abortion is a crime in all circumstances, even when the life of the mother is at risk.

Chile’s law was imposed by military dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1989, just months before he handed over power to a democratic government.

Bachelet’s campaign has called for decriminalization of abortion in cases of rape and when the life of the mother is at risk.

Matthei once co-sponsored a bill to allow some abortions, but now says that if elected, she will follow Biblical dictates on the procedure.

Rios says beyond specific policies, people want to feel included in decision-making. “Of all its Millennium Development Goals, Chile has met most,” Rios says.

“The only ones that won’t be met by 2015 are those related to gender equality: access to power, the pregnancy rate of teens. Now people don’t just want services, they want quality services. They want to participate in the solution.”

Voters today can participate in one decision, until polls close at 6 p.m.

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