Why Chile’s New Constitution Is a Feminist Victory

Activists built on years of organizing to achieve a groundbreaking gender-parity requirement in the upcoming drafting process.

Women take part in a demonstration during the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in Santiago, Chile, on Nov. 25, 2020.
Women take part in a demonstration during the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in Santiago, Chile, on Nov. 25, 2020. MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty Images

Far from the festive celebrations, Karina Nohales spent Christmas Day protesting in the heat of the Santiago summer, furiously decrying violence against women. “No estamos todas…” (We’re not all here), she shouted through her protective facemask in one of several feminist rallies organized after a string of unrelated killings of women occurred over Christmas week.

The three killings brought an already formidable year to a tragic end. A total of 43 alleged femicides took place in 2020, with an additional estimated 151 cases of attempted femicide—the latter being the highest figure recorded since annual femicide records began.

“We march in different parts of the country, not only to denounce violence, but also the disinterest from the state,” says Nohales, highlighting the government’s 2021 budget, which includes only $1.7 million dedicated to preventing violence against women—an amount that is no higher than the year before despite a spike in domestic violence cases tied to ongoing pandemic lockdowns.

Nohales, an employment lawyer and spokeswoman for Chile’s largest feminist-advocacy group, Coordinadora 8M, now has a historic opportunity to fight for women at the highest levels in Chile. She is running as an independent candidate to be among the 155-strong assembly tasked with rewriting Chile’s Constitution. The October 2020 referendum in which Chileans voted for a new constitution also provided a chance to vote for a constitutional assembly-led drafting process, which would include a groundbreaking guaranteed gender-parity requirement. On the date of the vote, the parity option was favored by a resounding 79.18 percent of voters.

Nohales believes a new constitution can provide a legal framework to protect women’s lives and safety. Like other feminist candidates, she advocates a new set of constitutional rights, including complete individual autonomy over one’s body. These rights would facilitate progressive laws that could permit safe and legal abortion, greater rights for trans and non-binary people, and allow same-sex marriage and adoption.

Nohales believes a new constitution can provide a legal framework to protect women’s lives and safety.

The demand for a new constitution emerged after a national uprising in October 2019. Student protests over increasing metro fares mushroomed into a nationwide movement protesting against high costs of living and a sense of alienation from the political elite. As discontent surged, separate demands over education access, pension reform, and public health, among many other issues, converged into calls to replace Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship-era constitution, criticized as prioritizing economic interest over basic human needs.

Feminist groups were among the loudest shouting for change. During the months of mass protests, the phrase “The revolution will be feminist—or it won’t be a revolution,” was etched onto city walls, projected onto buildings, and chanted by thousands of women.

“For many years, protests in Chile were fragmented into separate demands—for state education, fairer pensions, and women’s rights,” says Estefanía Campos, regional director of feminist group Poderosas (Powerful Women). “During the social uprising, the demands merged. Women’s rights used to come in second place, but now they are primordial.”

Women in Chile have been active in protest for decades, both during the dictatorship and before it, but Chile’s current feminist movement was strongly influenced by the 2015 internet-born movement against gender violence in Latin America, #NiUnaMenos, and the transborder pañuelo verde (green scarf) rallies which sought to draw attention to restrictions on abortion across the region. This budding solidarity was reinforced by mass protests in 2018’s “feminist wave” when female-led university occupations against sexism and abuse paralyzed academic institutions for months. By 2019, feminist groups in Chile had united thousands of protesters across the country through demands that included greater equality, protection against domestic violence, and extended access to abortion; they were primed for the October uprising.

Responding to protesters’ demands, politicians agreed to hold a referendum over writing a constitution. During the weeks that followed the referendum announcement in November 2019, lawmakers hashed out a plan to determine the process for rewriting the constitution. Two options were presented—a constitutional assembly composed fully of popularly-elected citizens or a mixed-assembly composed of civilians and politicians—but neither ensured gender parity, which had long been one of the core feminist demands. During a fierce series of demonstrations in December 2019, feminist groups —with the help of political allies—were snuck into closed-door voting sessions on the constitutional process, effectively suspending congress. The groups waved banners with the phrase “parity is democracy” before being forced out by security.

Campos was there. She says the act of infiltrating the political sphere was symbolic: “Lawmakers have to understand that the new Chile will be made with the public inside the institutions, watching them.”

Ceding to mounting pressure, members of Congress withdrew their initial decision and gave referendum voters the option of choosing gender parity within the constitutional assembly option. “The feminist movement has achieved very concrete changes—like achieving parity in the new constitution. It’s historic, that has never happened before in the world,” says Bárbara Sepúlveda, director of feminist lawyer collective Abofem, who is also running as a candidate to write the new constitution.

Feyzi Ismail, who teaches on global protest movements at the SOAS University of London, believes Chile’s women’s movement sets an example in presenting a united front that includes queer and trans women, women of different economic classes and political beliefs, and cultures ranging from Chile’s indigenous to the migrant community.

Together, different women’s collectives and organizations worked towards a clear set of tactical and strategic goals. “It was right for the women’s movement to stand up and participate in the wider movement in Chile, but also raise very specific issues related to women.”

Ismail points to the viral protest anthem “A Rapist in Your Path” as an example of this. Written by Chilean collective Las Tesis as a theatrical intervention, it was first performed by feminist protesters in November 2019, a month into the social uprising. Thousands of women were filmed side by side, their eyes blindfolded, swaying in choreographed unison. They chant “It’s not my fault / not how I dressed / or where I was” before raising a firmly pointed finger, “The rapist is YOU / the police / the judges / the president.”

The anthem’s scathing attack of institutions buoyed support to write a new constitution in Chile, but as the videos of the protests went viral, women across the world also repeated it, including those in India, Mexico, the U.K., and France. It was memorably orchestrated outside the trial of Harvey Weinstein in New York last year.

“It was absolutely brilliant—a creative injection into the global women’s movement that inspired others,” says Ismail.

Emilia Schneider is a feminist law student and trans activist who is running as a constituent in Santiago. “The public is demanding more participation,” she says, “We need to put communities into state decisions.” Sepúlveda similarly defines a feminist constitution as one that would not only improve women’s rights but ensure the rights of many others who are disadvantaged. “We need to redesign institutions—not only to redistribute power between men and women,” she argues, “but also give voice to those who have been historically excluded from political decisions.”

While Sepúlveda and Schneider are running with political support (the Communist Party and left-wing coalition Broad Front, respectively), Nohales ratified her candidacy by surpassing the required 938 signatures in her district this January, making her one of 816 women independent candidates.

The vote to establish the constitutional assembly will take place in April 2021. Regardless of the outcome of her candidacy, Nohales believes there is strong ground to start from to improve women’s lives in Chile. She hopes other countries will follow Chile’s move in ensuring parity in constitutional reforms, “This is an international achievement,” she says. “We achieved parity in Chile thanks to every single woman, in any part of the world, who stepped out onto the streets for change.”

Correction, Feb. 16, 2020: A previous version of this article misspelled Feyzi Ismail’s last name in one instance. It has been corrected.

Charis McGowan is a freelance journalist in Santiago who writes with a focus on gender rights and feminist protest in Latin America.