CHILE ENDING 'GENDER ORDER' BASED ON EXCLUSION, VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN, WOMEN'S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE TOLD19990622
Director of National Women's Service Cites Significant Legal Reforms; Committee Experts Concerned by Teenage Pregnancy, Lack of Abortion Access
Following a return to democracy in the early 1990s, Chile was endeavouring to build a new gender order, ending the one based on discrimination, subordination, exclusion, violence and cultural devaluation of women, a representative of that country told the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this morning.
Introducing Chile's third periodic report to the 23-member expert body, which monitors compliance with the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Maria Josefina Bilbao, Minister and Director of the National Women's Service (SERNAM), said the period under review -- 1995 to 1998 -- had been significant in terms of the number of reforms enacted that positively impacted women's quality of life. For example, in May, the Congress had approved an amendment to the Constitution through which legal equality between women and men would be explicitly established.
She described a number of other recent and ongoing legislative initiatives, among them, a 1994 law penalizing domestic violence -- essential in a country where women were victimized by violence in one of every four homes -- and a law on filiation, which was about to enter into force and would make children equal before the law regardless of the circumstances of their birth. Currently, more than 40 per cent of Chilean children were illegitimate. By the new law, acknowledgement of a child would no longer be based on the father's will, as had been the case for 150 years.
Abortion was the most serious health problem affecting Chilean women, she continued. There was an estimated one abortion for every four pregnancies, and it was the second cause of maternal death. The medical risks associated with abortion were high, due to the clandestine circumstances in which it was practised. The Government's basic strategy for preventing abortion was family planning, reinforced with the promotion of responsible fatherhood.Women's Anti-Discrimination Committee - 1a - Press Release WOM/1144 442nd Meeting (AM) 22 June 1999
In their comments this morning, experts expressed grave concern about the high levels of teenage pregnancy and lack of access to abortion. An expert said that, while abstinence might be the best solution in a perfect world, Chile had a serious problem of violence against women, and many women and girls were becoming pregnant due to violence against them. Another said religion strongly influenced Chile's society and Government, but the State must ensure that all people had the right to good health, including reproductive health.
Another said that Chile's Government was modern and thriving, so it should have no problem providing certain contraceptives, such as emergency measures, to women and girls who became pregnant, through rape, for example. Before 1990, abortion had been allowed for health reasons, but today any abortion was illegal, another expert noted. Why had there been a step backwards? she asked.
Many attempts to improve the conditions of women in Chile had been rejected, said another expert. The law on divorce had been languishing, due to a massive campaign by conservative forces, including the Church. Regarding women's lack of property rights in marriage, she said that if women were unable to control their property, men would take advantage of the situation, particularly in unhappy marriages. That would have very serious consequences for women and children, and older women, in particular.
The Committee will meet again at 3 p.m. today to continue its consideration of Chile's report.
Women's Anti-Discrimination Committee - 2 - Press Release WOM/1144 442nd Meeting (AM) 22 June 1999
Committee Work Programme
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to begin its consideration of Chile's third report (document CEDAW/C/CHI/3), submitted under article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. That article provides for States parties to submit reports on legislative, judicial, administrative and other measures adopted to give effect to the provisions of the Convention.
Chile's women account for just over half of its population of 14.2 million inhabitants, of whom 84.7 per cent live in urban areas, according to the report. A National Women's Service (SERNAM) was established in 1991. Its director has ministerial rank. Its mission is to collaborate with the executive branch in studying and proposing plans and measures to ensure that women enjoy equal rights. It has a legal reform programme, through which it identifies discriminating legislation. With the Ministry of Education, it coordinates adult education programmes for women heads of household, and has spearheaded extensive intersectoral strategies to prevent teenage pregnancy and domestic violence.
Chile ratified the Women's Convention in 1989. The report provides information on the period since its last report in 1995 through the end of 1998. The ruling coalition, the Alliance of Parties for Democracy, began a process of transition within the framework of the 1980 Constitution inherited from the military regime, and amended by the 30 July 1989 plebiscite. The report states that the current legal framework includes "leyes de amarre", or "laws keeping things tied up", which means laws perpetuating authoritarian features of Chile's institutions. Difficult to change because of provisions left over from the military regime, such laws include the existence of 10 designated or institutional senators out of a total of 48 senators, including a senator for life, former head of State, Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.
The Convention is the law of the State under provisions of the Constitution and, therefore, its definition of discrimination is fully applicable, the report states. A bill is being considered that would incorporate changes into the Constitution. A change was proposed to Article 1 of the Constitution, which currently states "[m]en are born free and equal in dignity and rights". The change would read: "Persons are born free and equal in dignity and rights". Also, article 19, paragraph 2 would read: "Men and women are equal before the law". The changes were approved in 1997 by the Chamber of Deputies and currently await a vote in the Senate. Civil and labour laws prohibit any form of discrimination, including by sex.
With one exception -- joint ownership of property -- women*s legal capacity is identical to men*s under the law, the report states. Under the joint ownership regime for marriage, married women face numerous legal obstacles to managing their assets and obtaining credit, the report continues. The husband owns joint property, including property that had been the wife*s. Unless expressly excluded from that arrangement in the matrimonial settlement, a wife's property can be transferred by the husband without her authorization. Further, in practice, a bank requires a husband*s approval before lending money to the wife.
The report describes a healthy economic environment, in which macroeconomic equilibria are preserved, while emphasis is placed on social programmes to reduce poverty and marginalization, improving health and providing education and training opportunities for all. A major effort has been made to modernize the State, including the Equal Opportunity Plan for Women, 1994-1999.
Despite Chile*s continued economic growth and the emergence of new jobs and opportunities, the report states that women*s real opportunities have not changed significantly in recent years. The work culture identifies occupations by sex, resulting in fewer opportunities for women*s career advancement, and for training. In 1996, the unemployment rate was 7.3 per cent for women and 4.9 per cent for men. On average, women earn 70.3 per cent of what men earn. The employment rate in urban areas is 38.2 per cent for women and 74.5 per cent for men, compared to rural rates of 20.1 per cent for women and 75.4 per cent for men.
In Chile, education for eight years is compulsory. Adult literacy is 94.6 per cent. One in four students goes on to higher education. Far reaching education reform is being undertaken, with participation from SERNAM. Sixty per cent of young people from low socio-economic strata drop out of school. Generally, boys do so to work, while pregnancy or marriage is the leading cause for girls leaving school. Literacy and enrolment rates are lower in rural areas, although the report states that the main problem affecting basic education in rural areas is quality rather than access, and enrolment rates for boys and girls are similar. The Ministry of Education is considering a curriculum to link local culture and general aspects of knowledge, and involving relevant teacher training.
A number of programmes and policies have been implemented to address the problems faced by rural women, the report states. The National Institute for Agricultural Development has been developing activities on their behalf, including a programme to finance productive activities among peasant women, which involved changing the rules on access to credit. In 1997, 9,038 women accessed credit amounting to $6.7 million through INDAP.
In 1995, a Rural Division was created in SERNAM and, in the same year, the office began building alliances to promote coordination between public and international bodies for the benefit of rural women. It also facilitates dialogue between State bodies and civil society regarding policy design and implementation. A national Rural Women*s Task Force has been established and five regional entities, to encourage rural women to participate in the design of regional policies.
There are approximately 200,000 women seasonal workers whose situation is particularly precarious in terms of working conditions, wage instability and childcare during their long workdays, the report states. Booklets on labour rights have been distributed to these women, and community workshops conducted for them. Studies are now being carried out through SERNAM regarding health insurance and the control of pesticides for input to legislative initiatives. Also, SERNAM is coordinating assistance programmes for female seasonal workers involving childcare, education and health services.
There are two health care systems in Chile, the report states -- a public system administered by the State and a private system. In the public system, primary medical services are free, including prenatal care and health care for children. Those services are guaranteed for persons with low incomes, such as pensioners and indigent persons. Pregnant women are entitled to State protection during pregnancy and up to six months after the birth of their child; newborns and children up to six years are also entitled to State protection and health care.
In 1997, the Ministry of Health and SERNAM launched a Women*s Health Programme, which is to benefit four million women, primarily in the areas of promotion and prevention, the report states. The Programme covers women*s health throughout the life cycle, providing coverage for consulting with specialists in areas including infertility, menopause, occupational health and nutrition.
Chile's social security system was reformed in 1981 to include a private pension scheme based on individual savings, the report states. The State regulates the way those operate and guarantees a minimum pension if that provided by the pension fund is below subsistence level. A woman*s old-age pension is lower than a man*s, even if she receives a pension at the same age and with the same amount of capital in her individual investment account.
The State pays the salary for women's maternity leave for six weeks before and 12 weeks after the birth of a child. Together with the Ministry of Education, SERNAM is promoting childcare systems for children of working mothers by extending the hours of such facilities for children of women heads of household and women seasonal workers.
Introduction of Report
MARIA JOSEFINA BILBAO, Minister, Director of SERNAM, introduced Chile's second and third reports. She said that very early on, the State had demonstrated its concern to make progress in policies designed to improve the status of women. In 1969, the Government established the National Office for Women to draw up and coordinate specific policies for women. The National Secretariat for Women was established during the Government of President Salvador Allende. It was responsible for advising the Government on the preparation and coordination of plans and policies relating to the incorporation of women in society and to child care.
Those advances faced a major setback in 1973 with the establishment of a military Government in Chile, she continued. During that period, many women went back to their homes. The severe economic crisis of the 1980s, which increased the level of unemployment to more than 30 per cent, led women to organize themselves to optimize jointly the scant resources available to families for their survival. Chile's absence from the international community for 17 years had major cultural and social repercussions.
When Chile joined the international community in 1990, with the return of democracy, it had suffered from a major disadvantage, she said. The cultural debate had been suspended for almost 20 years. Chile had participated in all the international summits and conferences of the current decade, and had signed a series of conventions and agreements on issues that had not been debated and were only now beginning to be included in the public agenda. That had constituted a major obstacle to the work, not only of incorporating the gender perspective in public policies, but also of making other necessary changes to improve the status and position of women. That was the cultural and political framework within which the Government had to implement the women's Convention and other conventions.
Progress with regard to the status of women in Chile in this decade had been promoted by the establishment in January 1991 of the National Women's Service (SERNAM), she said. SERNAM's existence and participation in the State machinery had been vital to the incorporation of the gender perspective into public policies and the promulgation of laws that protected women, prevented discrimination and ensured the incorporation of the principle of equality in various spheres, thus laying a solid foundation for progress towards gender equity. Today, the State financed 90 per cent of the body's budget.
SERNAM's function, she continued, was to cooperate with the Executive in the design and coordination of government policies that contributed to putting an end to the discrimination that affected women in the family, social, economic, political and cultural spheres. The Equal Opportunities Plan for Women (1994- 1999) was drawn up to promote equitable distribution between the sexes of social resources and tasks, civil rights and participation and positions of power and authority, and to enhance the value of the activities carried out by men and women.
The growing participation of women from all social levels in the job market, in both urban and rural areas, and at a greater rate of increase than that of men, permitted the assertion that the gap between men and women in the job market had decreased, she said. At the same time, more programmes and specific policies needed to be developed aimed at creating better quality jobs for women and reconciling housework and paid employment, especially for women who had small children and, thus, faced a greater workload in the home. Also, the wages paid to men and women were not equal. In 1996, the average income of women workers was 29 per cent lower than that of men.
Over the past ten years, the number of poor households in Chile had decreased, she went on. A considerable number of them had moved above the poverty line thanks to the financial contribution made by women. SERNAM had since 1993 been conducting a comprehensive programme aimed at preparing low- income women for employment, addressed primarily to women heads of households. Examination of the working conditions and incomes of women indicated the existence of discrimination against them, she said. That was due to the fact that women were active predominantly in low-productivity sectors and that fewer women than men had job contracts, despite the fact that, on average, they worked hours very similar to those of men. In that context, SERNAM had continued to develop the Programme for Women Seasonal Workers aimed specifically at addressing the precariousness of women's work in the agricultural export sector and its relation to the quality of life of the women employed in that sector. One aspect of the Programme aimed to provide those women workers with support in developing leadership, participation and formation of associations.
It was in the labour sphere that the largest number of legal changes had taken place with respect to both improving women's access to employment and their working conditions, and to promoting the sharing of family responsibilities and protection of mothers.
One of Chile's major achievements was that, at the primary, secondary and higher levels, the level of registration was equal for men and women, she said. However, that did not automatically mean greater opportunities for women. The educational reform currently underway had incorporated that aspect. While illiteracy had been almost completely eradicated, the problem still existed among adult and older women, particularly in rural areas. That challenge had been met through adult education programmes that emphasized the need for the content of literacy courses to reflect women's needs and interests and facilitate their entry or re-entry into the job market.
In terms of equality of opportunity between women and men in education, she said that public policies had to deal with the issue of quality of education, and the discrimination generated by the content of education and by teaching methodologies. Also, teachers must be trained in the gender perspective, so as to break the vicious cycle between the segregation of women teachers themselves and the reproduction of sex-based discrimination in the content of the educational process.
Another issue that needed to be tackled more resolutely was the prevention of teenage pregnancy, she continued. Teenage pregnancy had been addressed by the State in a comprehensive manner, and preventive action and specific measures were being undertaken in the school system and the health services jointly with teenagers, their families, their teachers and the community at large. In light of that situation, four years ago, SERNAM, together with the ministries of education and health, had launched the Discussion Seminars on Emotionality and Sexuality. That model was centered on educating young people to take care of themselves and enabling them to take a responsible attitude towards their sexuality.
Turning to health, she said that the accumulation of roles in the lives of women had had negative effects on their health in terms of pressure, fatigue and mental health problems. Where primary health care was concerned, the figures for Chilean women were close to those of developed countries. A major public health problem was induced abortion. It was estimated that there was one abortion for every four pregnancies, and abortion constituted the second cause of maternal death. Chilean legislation prohibited and penalized abortion in all its forms. Accordingly, the medical risks associated with abortion, because of the clandestine circumstances in which it was practiced, tended to be concentrated in the lower-income sectors.
The Government's basic strategy for preventing abortion and reducing its consequences was family planning, she added. That policy was reinforced by promoting the concept of responsible fatherhood, which allowed for conceptions and births that were freely desired by both parents.
The reason for linking health insurance closely with the entry of women into the job market was based on the fact that the majority of women were still engaged in housework as their primary activity. Accordingly, their access to the health insurance system was as dependents. Thus, any policy for improving the entry of women into the job market was a policy that had a direct impact on their opportunities for protecting their health.
Turning then to participation, she said that while more women voted than men, they were not equally active at decision- making levels. The number of women holding elective office in municipalities was increasing, and so too was the number of women in technical and professional posts, the judiciary, media and business. Overall, however, women's participation was pyramid- shaped; broad at the base and narrow at the top.
Access to decision-making positions in the political and economic spheres was most difficult, she continued. No woman had served as President of the Senate or of the Chamber of Deputies. No woman had served on the Supreme Court. Few women were involved in such issues as national security and macroeconomic policy. Instead, they were concentrated in areas of activity relating to education, health, family and justice. Affirmative action policies had not been incorporated into Chilean legislation, although they had been applied within political parties. A bill had been proposed to ensure specific levels of women in Congress, but it had been rejected by Parliament.
Through SERNAM, officials were being trained to incorporate the gender perspective in planning, executing and evaluating programmes, she said. Further, SERNAM was publicizing the rights of women, in part by strengthening the work of Women's Rights Information Centres in all regional capitals. Parallel to efforts to give women individual, group and institutional attention, SERNAM was publicizing rights through radio programmes throughout the country. Last year, a pilot query-response programme was implemented, using a free and public access computer system. It was now being replicated in five regions.
Turning then to legal reforms, she said the period covered in the report had been significant in terms of the number of reforms enacted that positively impacted upon women's quality of life. On 16 May, the Congress had approved an amendment to the Constitution through which legal equality between women and men would be explicitly established. The word "men" would be replaced by "person" and a sentence would be inserted stating that men and women were equal before the law.
Other positive bills concerned family violence, property sharing and employment, she said. In developing its legislative agenda, SERNAM had had to take into account the country's conservatism in some sectors, as well as the composition of the Senate, in which the Government did not have a majority, partly because of the designated senators. The recent constitutional amendment was a milestone in advancing the status of Chilean women, and resulted from a globalization of cultural matters. The signal sent by the amendment must be extended into media and educational institutions.
She then drew attention to the law penalizing domestic violence, which defined such violence as maltreatment affecting physical or mental health of any family member. The law had been in force since 1994, and was a major advance. In one of every four Chilean homes, women were victims of violence. It had, therefore, been essential to establish legal and social penalties for that behaviour. Another important result of the law was the establishment of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Prevention of Violence Within the Family, coordinated by SERNAM and the ministries of health, education, justice and foreign affairs, the national youth institute and the judiciary, the police and the Chilean network against domestic and sexual violence.
Another important legislative advance pertained to filiation, she said. A new law would enter into force in four months, radically changing the principle of family law. It rendered all boys and girls equal before the law, regardless of the circumstances of their birth. Currently, more than 40 per cent of Chilean children were illegitimate, with negative social consequences. Under the new law, all boys and girls would have the same rights of inheritance, support and legal representation. The law embodies the principle of free investigation of paternity and admitted all types of evidence, including biological. Parental authority would be exercised by whichever of the parents they decided on by common accord. In the event of separation, authority would be exercised by the parent responsible for the child's personal care.
Through the new law, acknowledgement of a son or daughter would no longer be based solely on the will of the father, as had been the case in Chile for 150 years, she said. Previously, a man's refusal was enough to deprive the child of a legal father and result in the child's birth certificate bearing the stigma of illegitimacy. With the acceptance of biological evidence, the claim to fatherhood would now have true meaning. It would cease to be a presumption, and instead become a fact.
Other bills still in the approval process related to the issue of women and family law, including one establishing family courts, sexual offence and marital rape, she said.
Chile was endeavouring to build a new gender order, ending the one based on discrimination, subordination, exclusion, violence and cultural devaluation of women, she said. A new plan for equality of opportunity between men and women was being drawn up, with input from all sectors of society. The challenges of the future included addressing the need for far-reaching socio- cultural change that was required to eliminate discrimination. Also, a culture of economic autonomy and equality for women must be promoted to progress towards gender equity. Other challenges included restructuring family life to strengthen the male presence, and incorporating the gender approach into all public policies.
Experts' Comments and Questions
An expert congratulated the delegation on the constitutional reform that had been recently approved. It was something that SERNAM had been working very hard for, and it was an important achievement not only for Chile, but also an encouragement for women and women's groups in other countries. Also, the Government's demonstration of political will in strengthening SERNAM over the years was very satisfying. It was not common for institutions established by previous governments to maintain their integrity with a change in government. That was cause for hope that, regardless of the outcome of election to be held in December, the next government of Chile would maintain that same degree of political will.
She noted that one area where not enough information had been provided was the role of women's groups or non-governmental organizations in Chile, which in the Committee's opinion was very important. The Committee had always appealed for greater participation of civil society in the advancement of women. Chilean women had played an important role in the economic, political, and cultural development of the country. She wanted to know what was happening with Chilean women today, following the triumph of democracy. Why were they not seen more visibly in the report? she asked.
With regard to Chile's programmes to reduce poverty, she said that the training of low-income women was of interest. Noting the programme for temporary women workers, she said that was important and necessary, since temporary workers were a major component of the women's labour force. The Government's actions to protect women workers, such as the inclusion of domestic workers in labour protection laws, was a good example for other countries. Female domestic workers were the ones with the greatest disadvantages and enjoyed the least protection in many countries.
Regarding ownership of land in rural areas, she wanted to know whether the same rights applied to Mestizo, or indigenous women, that applied to Chilean women. Also, it was important to take into account the need to give the same quality and quantity of land to rural women as given to rural men.
There were several areas of concern, she said. The work being done by SERNAM had showed that it enjoyed good political support from the Executive branch. SERNAM's mission was that of collaborating with the Executive in designing public policies. However, that work was not done directly with women. She suggested that it would be worthwhile to consider reorienting SERNAM's guidelines, in an effort to create greater linkages with women's groups and non-governmental organizations. A more direct and closer dialogue with those groups would provide for constant updating and flow of information. Maintaining a linkage with civil society and non-governmental organizations was crucial for promoting the status of women.
Also of concern to her was teenage pregnancy. Despite the establishment of the Discussion Seminars on Emotionality and Sexuality programme, it seemed that the desired results had not been achieved and teenage pregnancy had increased. Either the education programmes or access to contraception and information were lacking. The ages at which teenage pregnancy was occurring were very worrisome. A girl of 14 was not in a position to have children. The problem needed direct attention by SERNAM and other organizations.
The provision of contraception and open discussion was vital in addition to education programmes, she added. In that regard, the role of the Church in the social sphere had to be taken into account. Further, surgical operations to bring about complete inability to give birth could only be done with the cooperation of the husband. That should be dealt with differently, since it was a question of women exercising their reproductive rights.
An expert expressed great concern about the regulation on voluntary sterilization, which demanded spousal consent. It was sad to read that when the regulation was drafted, it had not included that requirement, which had been added by public health providers. That indicated that those health providers were not aware of women's human rights. Even as family members, women had individual rights. Medical providers should be given human rights education. The spousal consent requirement contravened articles of the Convention on which Chile did not have reservations, including article 12.1. The Committee's general recommendations 21, on the family, and 24, on health, could assist Chile in amending its laws and regulations in relation to women's reproductive health and rights.
She said she understood the problems facing Chile regarding contraception, since religion so strongly influenced society and government. But the State was responsible to ensure that all people, including women and girls, had the right to good health, and that included reproductive health. The Government must make every effort to behave as a secular government. The Government was modern and thriving. It should have no problem providing certain contraceptive measures, such as emergency measures, to women and girls who became pregnant, through rape, for example. Women who became pregnant as the result of rape should not have to live with the mental torture of bearing the child, who also should be spared the torture of knowing he or she had been unwanted. Such measures must be made affordable to such women.
Pregnant students were discriminated against in Chile, she noted. Yet, pregnancy should not be a source of discrimination in any way. Pregnant girls were expelled from schools, in gross violation of their rights to equality and education. Chile's Government was progressive. It had the political will to grant equality in all aspects of life to men and women. Therefore, it must do everything possible to abolish that law. Recalling an unsuccessful attempt to do that, she urged Chile to create enough awareness that such a law could be passed.
Reports to the Committee must include information on substance abuse, she continued. Chile was highly developed and she assumed that tobacco consumption was high. More information should be provided in the next report.
Another expert said stereotypes must be addressed. Chile had made great strides in a number of areas, yet, such advances could sometimes be almost an impediment. For example, when women were educated and economically productive, they sometimes became the target of violence by men, who perceived them as endangering traditional notions of masculinity. Hegemonic mindsets must be changed alongside laws, as standards of employment, health and education were improved, she continued. Specific programmes must be directed towards men to change the mindset of the dominant elements of a traditional patriarchal, masculine-dominated culture. Consciousness-raising among women was crucial, but changing men's attitudes was equally important. That was particularly true in societies where it was difficult to change existing political conditions right away and to promote women to decision-making positions in large numbers at once. What was the Chilean State doing to gender-sensitize critical elements in society, including political and community leaders, and the judiciary at high levels? she asked.
An expert lauded Chile's courageous legislative reform, as well as its efforts to address poverty and integrate women's rights into all sectors relating to equality before the law. She was extremely concerned about adolescent pregnancy and the prohibition of abortion, which affected the rights to health, education and sometimes to life. The Government must protect its citizens. While public schools allowed pregnant adolescents to attend, private schools could refuse. The Government should pressure those institutions to allow girls to return to school. Also, it should provide sex education to protect girls from early pregnancy.
Abortion was the second cause of maternal deaths in Chile, she said. Before 1990, abortion had been allowed for health reasons. Why had there been a step backwards? she asked. Women's health and their right to life were being affected.
On family life and the relationship between spouses, she welcomed the reforms on filiation and other measures, such as those prohibiting the marriage of children. While the marriage age for children -- 16 years -- was low, at least it was the same for both sexes. However, legislation on divorce was of concern. A bill had been approved in 1997 in the Chamber of Deputies, but the Senate had not yet approved it. Under what conditions was divorce allowed? she asked. Why had the law not yet been approved? Divorce was a necessary evil. A society that respected rights could not obligate persons to live together. SERNAM could be helpful in getting the law adopted and implemented.
Another expert said she was very concerned about law and policy regulating women's private life in Chile. Towards the end of the authoritarian regime, abortion had become completely illegal, whereas previously, therapeutic abortion had been available. That had a seriously detrimental effect on women's health in Chile. The number of illegal abortions was among the highest per capita in Latin America. The law was, therefore, not effectual. It was actually detrimental to women. The number of maternal deaths due to unsafe abortions was extremely high and increasing since the enactment of legislation making therapeutic abortion illegal. That was an indictment. The Government must protect women.
Physicians must report abortions when women came to hospitals for procedures related to illegal abortions, she continued. That had serious consequences. Women would avoid going to the hospital at all cost. It further deprived them of liberty, as a number of women were imprisoned for abortions.
The theory seemed to be that abstinence was the best solution, she said. That might be possible in a perfect world, but Chile had a serious problem of violence against women, and many became pregnant due to violence against them.
She noted that many attempts to improve the conditions of women in Chile had been rejected. Courts were overloaded, and courts and judges were not selected and trained to administer the law on family violence. The law on divorce had been languishing. There had been a massive campaign by conservative forces, including the Church, to prevent it from being enacted. She was also concerned about property in marriage. If women were unable to control their property during marriage, it was likely that men would take advantage of the situation, particularly in unhappy marriages, and try to acquire property for themselves. That would have very serious consequences for women and children, and older women, in particular.
She said public opinion favoured liberalizing the law to protect the lives, rights and health of women, particularly in the family setting. Moves towards establishing a family court should be given greater impetus, and laws reviewed to ensure a coordinated policy concerning such areas as divorce, care of children, property, and women's health, particularly regarding abortion. Those laws could be administered by a court with specially trained judges. Law could be an instrument for good, rather than for the oppression of, women, as seemed to be the case in many sectors. Chile's history of oppressing and marginalizing women would take a long time to change, but the country was on the right path.
An expert noted that Chile had achieved much in terms of equal opportunities for women, in only nine years of democracy. She was impressed with three aspects of the report: the high number of women entering the work force; the quasi-elimination of illiteracy; and the Government's efforts to eliminate poverty in the country. With regard to SERNAM, she noted that while the body itself was a decentralized, public service institution, its Director had the rank of minister. Perhaps, if SERNAM had the designation of an actual ministry, rather than just a public service institution, along with its Director being a minister, then much more could be achieved. Also, cooperation with non-governmental organizations would give more visibility to SERNAM as an institution.
She had two major concerns -- abortion and divorce, she remarked. So many women were dying in Chile due to clandestine abortions. It was important to protect the right to life of those women and create a law that was more just for them. With regard to divorce, it was unjust for women to remain in conjugal situations that had broken down and in which mainly men profited.
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