Photo credit: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters
On November 25th, 2019 – the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – the streets of Santiago, Chile, were filled by thousands of women joined in protest. The Chilean women sang an anthem entitled “Un violador en tu camino” (“A Rapist in Your Path”), a song dedicated to the widespread sexual violence and human rights violations suffered by women in the country. The message of the song has resonated not only with Chileans, but with women across the globe – by the end of December, the song and its associated dance moves had been performed by protest groups as far as Nairobi and Tokyo but what inspired the viral feminist anthem that has swept across six continents?
A deeper look at the lyrics of “A Rapist in Your Path” can illuminate the issues that women in Chilean society are facing today. These roots are deeply political, with the song’s creators – the feminist theatre group Lastesis, based in the coastal city of Valparaíso – aiming to draw attention to the role of institutional actors like the police, the courts and politicians in upholding the structure of violence in Chile. For example, the choice of title by the group is a reference to “A friend in your path”, the official slogan of the Chilean Carabineros police force during the 1980s-1990s. That the song alludes to police as perpetrators of violence is an accurate reflection of reality in Chile; the Carabineros have been the subject of numerous controversies and accusations of brutality in recent decades. The violent history of this police force has been reignited since the onset of the current period of widespread protest in Chile. Beginning in October in response to rising subway fares and severe income inequality in the country, the movement has since expanded to include gender issues among the various causes motivating protestors. Chile’s National Human Rights Institute (NHRI) reports that the state’s crackdown on ongoing peaceful protests has produced “the most serious and multiple human rights violations” committed in 30 years, since the country was ruled by military dictatorship. Since the protests began hundreds of cases of legal actions for torture and other forms of violence have been filed against the government and as of December at least 26 protest-related deaths have been recorded. Some of this brutality has taken the form of sexual and gender-based violence. From the beginning of the protests in October until late November, the NHRI filed criminal complaints relating to 166 cases of alleged sexual violence within the context of the protests. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch documents reports of forced stripping in police custody and the observation that “the police appear to be more likely to force women and girls to strip than men”, making the message of Lastesis’ chant even more unsettling: “Over your dreams smiling and sweet, watches your loving cop.”
The likeness the NHRI draws between recent levels of violence from government forces with those seen in Chile 30 years ago – during the right-wing dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who ruled the country from 1973-1990 – can help shed light on the sources of the Carabineros’ power and abusive tendencies. During Pinochet’s regime, an estimated 40,000 Chileans were the victims of political detention, torture and extra-judicial execution, human rights violations in which the Carabineros were directly involved. Women suffered in particular as victims of sexual abuse by Pinochet’s forces – sexual assault, rape and forced pregnancy were common acts of torture used in Pinochet’s numerous detention centres across Chile. The dictator was arrested for crimes against humanity in 1998, although he was never sentenced for his crimes.
Chile’s unfavourable relationship with women’s rights extends beyond the direct actions of government agents, to the conditions experienced by women in Chilean society more generally. Chile’s 28-year-old ban on abortion came to an end in 2017, however the circumstances under which it is permitted are still restricted, and doctors can still refuse to perform abortions on ‘moral grounds’. Latin America has been named as the most dangerous region in the world for women according to a 2017 UNDP report, home to 14 of the 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide in the world – a reality which has sparked protest movements across the region, most recently and notably Monday’s protest in Mexico which saw women nationwide go on strike in protest of the country’s rampant gender-based violence. 42 cases of sexual abuse are reported to the police in Chile alone each day, but only ¼ of these result in judicial rulings. This contributes to the shocking fact that over a third (35.7%) of women in Chile who have experienced either physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner during their lifetime. Positive news came earlier this week with the signing in of a landmark gender-based violence law, named the ‘Gabriela Law’, which expanded the definition of femicide and increased the range of sentence that can be handed down for the crime in Chile. This milestone was somewhat overshadowed, however, by Chilean President Sebastian Piñera’s controversial statement that “sometimes it’s not just that men want to commit abuse, but also that women put themselves in a position where they are abused.” Piñera’s regressive and victim-blaming comments, alongside the abysmal conviction rate of sexual violence cases by Chilean courts summarise a patriarchal culture in which “it’s the cops, the judges, the state, the president” who are complicit; “the oppressive state is a rapist”.
The summer months of January and February marked a pause in civil unrest in Chile, but 8th March saw over 1 million women take part in International Women’s Day marches across the country. Rallies and marches continued into 9th March as a combined force of feminist groups, students and others protested for wider change. In cities like Antofagasta, the protests were eventually shut down by the Carabineros with the use of tear gas to disperse crowds. Gender-based violence is clearly not a stand-alone cause in Chile, but rather a movement being fought alongside the broader social issues driving Chileans to protest and demand significant institutional reform. As we continue into March, a month often noted for experiencing high levels of unrest in the country as it marks the anniversary of the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship, the international community will watch on as the people of Chile fight for systemic change.
This article was written by Holly. Holly is 23 years old from East Sussex, England. Since graduating with a degree in Politics and Economics in 2018 she has worked and volunteered in Africa and Asia and is currently living in China. Her interests include human rights, international security and development.