22 June 1999


22 June 1999

Press Release


19990622 Lack of Divorce Law, Under-representation in Decision-making, Constraints in Reproductive Health among Issues Addressed by Experts

Chile's women had played a leading role in the battle against the dictatorship and for human rights, yet they had no divorce law, were under- represented in decision-making positions and faced severe constraints in reproductive health, expert members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women said this afternoon.

As the Committee concluded consideration of Chile's report on its compliance with the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, an expert member insisted that every woman must be able to decide on the number, timing and spacing of her children. To do that, women needed education, information and access to contraceptive information. It was deeply troubling that emergency contraceptive measures were not available, even in cases of rape. Chile's prohibition of abortion -- under any circumstances -- affected poor women most, since they were unable to leave the country to address their situation.

Another expert added that Chile's high rate of teenage pregnancy was a manifestation of what happened when adolescents were not adequately equipped with information on sexual health. Another noted that 43 per cent of young mothers -- those between the ages of 12 and 19 -- were single. Was that related to the legal minimum age of marriage in Chile? she asked. Was there legislation in Chile outlining the age of consent? Did the Government intend to carry out education campaigns for young men and women in the schools and health systems to prevent early pregnancy?

Adolescent pregnancy was a leading cause for young people leaving school, an expert said. Chile's report indicated that generally, boys left school because they decided to work, while girls left for reasons to do with pregnancy and marriage, an expert recalled. She was concerned that such patterns revealed stereotypical perceptions of gender roles among young people. How would that be overcome? she asked.

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As for the absence of Chilean women from decision-making, an expert said Chilean women were strong, capable and courageous and thus, their absence from leadership positions was striking. Chilean women voted in high numbers. What was being done to increase their access to political and economic spheres? she asked.

Summing up Committee members' concerns, Chairperson Aida Gonzalez of Mexico said that a proposed law on sexual assault in the workplace was important, but it should be broadened to address harassment in schools and prisons as well. Committee members were extremely concerned about high unemployment rates for young women and the fact that Chile had no divorce law. Efforts on behalf of rural and indigenous women must continue, while family law should be strengthened and made more cohesive.

Responding to the questions posed by Committee members, Maria Josefina Bilbao, Director of the National Women's Service (SERNAM), said Chile was the only country in the western hemisphere that lacked a divorce law. A bill had been adopted by the Chamber of Deputies, but not yet by the Senate, and SERNAM was lobbying senator by senator so that the bill would be presented this year. She hoped a divorce law would exist by the end of 1999.

Also in response to Committee members, Rene Castro, responsible for the Women's Programme in Chile's Ministry of Health, described efforts to address women's health as an integral part of health care, with special attention to vulnerable groups, such as the poor and young people. He said his Ministry had recommended to schools that pregnant students be allowed to stay in school. That policy was maintained in the public system, but private schools, which could choose whether or not to expel pregnant students, generally did.

The Committee was also addressed by Carla Gonzalez, Director of the President's Inter-ministerial Coordination Division, and Maria Ester Feres, from the Ministry of Labour.

When the Committee meets again at 3 p.m. Friday, 25 June, it is to adopt the reports of its working groups, the provisional agenda for the twenty- second session, and its report for the twenty-first session.

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this afternoon to continue its consideration of the situation of women in Chile. It had before it Chile's third report on efforts to comply with the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which the 23-member Committee monitors. The report, which covers the period from 1995 through 1998, was introduced by Chile's delegation this morning. (For further background, see Press Release WOM/1144 of 22 June.)

Experts Comments and Questions

An expert noted Chile's recent achievements in improving women's lives in such areas as education and health. A number of laws had been promulgated to eliminate discrimination. However, Chile's lack of a divorce law was a concern. It was surprising that the marriage link could not be done away with when the causes for it ceased to exist. A divorce bill was to be discussed, but the Committee had not been told when, nor what obstacles impeded its adoption.

The prohibition on abortion -- for any reason -- was another issue of great concern, she continued. The military government had prohibited abortion even when the mother's life was at risk. Year after year, clandestine abortions had horrible consequences, particularly for poorer women who could not travel abroad to address their situation. What possibility was there for changing the harsh realities facing Chilean women? she asked. At the very least, the termination of pregnancy should be allowed for health reasons. Medical professionals were required to report women seeking medical care for abortion-related reasons. Was it not possible to protect confidentiality? she asked.

Another concern was that sterilization required a husband's consent, she continued. She then asked for more statistics on contraceptive use. Community meetings on sexuality, organized by the National Women's Service (SERNAM), were useful and well attended. Did the Government intend to carry out a sexual education campaign for young men and young women in the schools and health systems to ensure sexual health? she asked.

Large numbers of young people had to leave school because of adolescent pregnancy, she noted. Most of those children were unwanted, and often condemned to live in terrible situations, because of their parents living conditions. Every woman must be able to decide on the number, timing and spacing of her children. To do that, women needed education, information and access to contraceptive information. It was deeply troubling that in emergency situations, including cases of rape, emergency contraceptive measures were not available.

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She noted SERNAM's many programmes to assist poor women. Overcoming poverty had been taken up as a national challenge. Yet, the gap between those with resources and those without was widening and poverty was being feminized. She asked for information on how privatization had impacted poorer groups, particularly regarding education and health. More information was also needed about the lives of indigenous communities and ethnic minorities. How did the Convention apply to them and in what manner was their culture protected?

Few Chilean women held decision-making positions or worked at the management level, she noted. Yet women represented 52 per cent of the electorate. They had played an eminent role in the battle of confronting the dictatorship and in the battle for human rights. There was no doubt that Chilean women were strong, capable and courageous. Their absence from leadership positions was, therefore, all the more striking. She wondered how SERNAM viewed the situation, and how it intended to foster change. The report referred to SERNAM's interaction with non-governmental organizations, but she wondered whether there was any mechanism to allow systematic dialogue with those groups, which could help promote SERNAM's objectives and those of the Convention.

An expert noted that the clarity in Chile's approach to problems was a positive first step in tackling them. The SERNAM had been a useful tool in addressing the problems of women. She said that additional efforts were required in the area of marriage law. Regarding family law, the financial responsibility for unmarried women was worrisome. Laws adopted in the future must take that issue into account. Further, rural women should be given greater consideration, as well as indigenous women.

With regard to teenage pregnancy, one expert noted that 43 per cent of young mothers, between the ages of 12 and 19, were single mothers. She wanted to know what the legal minimum age of marriage was in Chile. Also, was there legislation in Chile outlining the age of consent? She added that approximately 18 per cent of the fathers of children born to teenage mothers were also adolescents, which was a manifestation of what happened when adolescents were not adequately equipped with information on sexual health.

Further, had there been any relationship drawn between the high rate of young motherhood and the sexual abuse of young girls, she asked. Were there any statistics on statutory rape and, if so, had there been a study of how many of them had resulted in pregnancy? she asked. The training of law enforcement personnel and the judiciary was a component that had to be added to SERNAM's objectives, in attempt to take a holistic approach to violence against women and girls.

An expert noted that Chile had a high human development index -- it was eighth among developing countries. The growing participation of women in the labour market had had a significant impact on Chile's economy. The increase

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in women's employment had been greater than that of men. However, it was disturbing that, despite all of that, unemployment among women was still higher than among men. While women's household income had grown substantially, had that intensified discrimination against women? she asked. Also, companies with more than 20 female employees were required to provide childcare. Was that complied with?

The most glaring evidence of discrimination was in the unequal pay women received as compared to men, she said. What was the seriousness with with those problems were being addressed by SERNAM and other bodies? she asked. Were the labour codes enforced? Also, were there any monitoring mechanisms, such as a national wage board? Further, had the objectives of the Equal Opportunities Plan been achieved? It seemed that since the wage gap was so wide, women might need some retraining to enter the non-traditional work sector.

Chile had a high number of women in the agricultural sector, she noted, most of whom worked as temporary or seasonal workers -- over 54 per cent. That meant that there was a long period of time when they were not employed. Were those workers entitled to unemployment benefits? she asked. Also, with regard to access to credit, only 9 per cent of the total micro-credit given had gone to women. Experience had shown that the only way women could gain access to credit was if it was given without collateral. In addition, did indigenous women have the same access to credit?

A Committee member said the new law on filiation was perhaps the most important reform in the century with respect to family law. It was all the more important given the high number of illegitimate children in Chile.

Illiteracy had almost entirely been abolished, she said, but she was concerned about the school drop-out rate. In 1997, 49.8 per cent of girls, and 42.3 per cent of boys left school early, and the rates were higher in low- income families. The gap between the genders was not too significant -- she was more concerned about the reasons young people were leaving school. According to the report, boys dropped out because they decided to work, while girls did so for reasons to do with pregnancy and marriage. That showed stereotypical perceptions of gender roles among young people. How would that be overcome? she asked.

Statistical information was needed regarding women in higher education, she said. Data should be compiled on the number of women in different disciplines, the areas of study that women entered and the ratio of women on faculty.

More information was also needed on women and employment, she continued. Were women in decision-making levels in the economic sector? she asked. Were they taking leading roles in business? What were their qualifications, how

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many were there and what kind of training did they receive? Why had there been no result in efforts to enact a law prohibiting sexual harassment?

What measures had been implemented regarding sexual harassment in the workplace? another expert asked. The Committee had been told that removing obstacles to women's economic autonomy was a priority. Did that refer to women's inability to be financially independent in Chile, or did it refer to their inability to enter into economic activities? Chile's human development index was high and education was strongly rooted in the culture. How could it be that Chilean women could not penetrate the economic sphere? she asked.

The next report should contain information on self-employed women, she said. Small- and medium-sized enterprises were the backbone of the Chilean economy. Those enterprises, often run by women, were playing a role in the country's economic activity, but that was not reflected with clear statistics in the report. In what areas had the Government failed to provide women with the proper infrastructure to penetrate the economic sphere? she asked. For example, was it involved in training, networking and human resource development? How could the Government further integrate women into the economic sphere of Chilean society?

Turning then to social security, she said that, at the country's current stage of development, the social security system was perhaps not as sophisticated as might be desired. It seemed that health insurance did not sufficiently cover women who were "housewives", and whose labour was viewed as economically inactive, or as not contributing to the economy. There was agreement that the value of women's work had to be acknowledged and given value. Those women should be given health benefits under the social security system for what they did in the home.

The report failed to discuss prostitution, she said. Was it sanctioned or prohibited? she asked. Was a woman who became a prostitute protected by law, and were her health and other rights safeguarded? Not enough had been presented on trafficking in women, or on HIV/AIDS infection rates or preventive measures.

Regarding the bill on divorce, she cautioned that it should not be constructed in a way that prevented the true dissolution of a marriage. It must be formulated to allow the couple to remarry, especially the woman. Also, the bill's provisions must not render it difficult to obtain a divorce, particularly when initiated by the woman. Divorce laws could sometimes make it so difficult for women to initiate proceedings that they stopped trying.

It seemed there was no law penalizing sexual harassment in Chile, said one expert. However, there was a bill currently being circulated. She wanted to know if that bill would be adopted soon. That bill should be checked to ensure that the definition of sexual harassment was not limited to only the

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workplace, but also included schools and prisons. She also requested more information in the next report on the health situation of Chilean women. For example, the life expectancy rates in urban and rural areas.

An expert said she hoped that the next Government, which would take power in March 2000, would continue to respect SERNAM's policies, which had been carried forward since Chile's return to democracy. In the context of the global economy, and the financial crisis situation of some markets, she wanted to know what the situation of employment was regarding opportunities for young people in the labour market.

She also asked what programmes SERNAM had for women in prison. What possibilities did women have of looking after their children, particularly those born to them in prison? Also, she asked if there were any quantifiable means of detecting violence against older women. Many countries suffered from that ill, but most people could not do anything about it, since that kind of violence often stemmed from their own children.

Concerning rural and indigenous women, did they have access to credit, modern technology and training? she asked. Also, could they own land? As for women in the armed forces, could they join, how high up could they advance and was there mandatory military service for both men and women.

Responding to the comments and questions posed by the Committee, MARIA JOSEFINA BILBAO, Minister, Director of SERNAM, said that the questions were interesting and would help SERNAM improve its focus and better confront the tasks ahead. Chile would be having elections in December and there would be a change of Government. Regarding the institutionalization of SERNAM, she said that the mission entrusted to it by the Government had a special characteristic, in that it was not an institution created by the Government alone. It had been proposed by the Government and then submitted to Parliament for approval. Therefore, it was not subject to different governments, which gave SERNAM an important consistency.

The SERNAM's mission was to impact the State apparatus vertically and horizontally to incorporate the gender perspective, she continued. While it did not work directly with women, that did not mean that it was not in contact with them. The SERNAM had information centres around the country, where it was in touch with women, their needs and the impact on them of public policy. Also, SERNAM had an ongoing conversation with members of civil society and had good relations with non-governmental organizations, who had to some extent become consultants.

It was true that the women's movement in Chile had been a strong, active and powerful one, she added. However, the problems which had come up during the country's attempt to recover democracy had resulted in a new way of relating with each other. That was a challenge for the future Government.

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The responsibilities of Government and civil society must be clear, to avoid confusion and enhance competence.

CARLA GONZALEZ, Director of the President's Inter-ministerial Coordination Division, said Chile's public administration consisted of traditional vertical ministries and lacked mechanisms for horizontal coordination between ministries. The Government had decided not to set up a ministry for women because it feared that the result might be that other ministries stopped dealing with related issues. The Director of SERNAM was a Minister who participated in high-level decision-making. She was part of the Cabinet and the inter-ministerial committees.

Addressing women's issues required cultural change, involving persuasion and working with people, she continued. The priorities and goals of SERNAM had been integrated into the Government's agenda. Chile felt it had chosen the correct institutional path by creating a public entity that could mobilize beyond any one organization, one that joined forces to promote change. In its present form, SERNAM had been able to achieve more than it could have as an institution unto itself.

RENE CASTRO, responsible for the Women's Programme in the Ministry of Health, said the programme, begun in 1994, addressed women's health as an integral part of health care, and involved non-medical professionals, as well as those working in health. The Ministry had a normative regulatory role, but Chile's health system operated through health service branches throughout the country. There were 350 municipal health centres throughout Chile. The system responded to demand and recognized the need to address vulnerable sectors, such as the poor and young people.

Chile's abortion figures were one of the country's great enigmas, he said. While some mentioned 100,000 abortions per year, he thought the real figures was about 80,000 per year. Hospital visits were the only source of data. Every effort was being taken to avoid death from abortion.

The Ministry had in 1997 defined 16 health priorities for 1997 to 2000, including sexual reproductive health, he said. That had five programme areas and priorities, including teenage abortion. Family planning was the main strategy, based on more than 30 years of experience. Through a national survey, high-risk groups were being identified for counselling and contraceptives. Women who were reported for a first abortion were targeted in efforts to prevent the recurrence of abortion.

Committee experts had expressed concern about medical professionals reporting women who sought care for abortion-related health matters, he noted. In fact, only the most serious cases were reported. Medical professionals only reported cases where women's lives were at risk or where women had lost

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their lives from abortions -- cases where the gravity of the case made it necessary to investigate the origin of the procedure.

In absolute terms, the number of pregnancies of women under 20 years of age had remained stable in recent years, despite an increase in percentage figures, he said. In 1991, his Ministry had recommended to schools that pregnant students be allowed to stay in school. That policy was maintained in the public system, but private schools, which could choose whether or not to expel pregnant students, generally did. In that respect, the public sphere was better than the private.

The problems facing low-income, young and single mothers required an inter-ministerial response, he said. In recent years, there had been a gradual lifting of taboos, so now teenage pregnancy could be discussed openly. Information was being presented to young people and activities were focusing on schools and communities. Physical and mental health personnel were promoting health in women's activities, and bringing an integral health programme to young people.

The problems associated with voluntary sterilization had been situated in the context of the dictatorship, he said. Authorization of the authorities were needed. The Ministry was now reviewing that issue and had developed a new body of regulations in that area. It had convened a working group and developed new norms for women to exercise their rights in an informed way. Currently, reproductive services were not provided to males.

On the issue of emergency contraception, he said that guidelines had recently been worked out for victims of sexual abuse, particularly young girls. That had been coordinated by the mental health section of the Ministry. In preparing those guidelines, pressure by the church had to be dealt with. The church had wanted to discontinue such forms of contraception. Currently, there was a bill in Parliament, which should be adopted next month. Cooperation between the health sector, judiciary and SERNAM was sought for that measure.

Gynaecological health control for sex trade workers was provided in Chile, he continued. There were preventive measures where persons involved had free access to specialized health services. With regard to AIDS, there was a multi-sector national commission to address the problem. In general, males were more affected to date. There was concern that a significant number of women who suffered from the disease had caught it from their male partners.

MARIA ESTER FERES, Ministry of Labour, said that many of the problems of women in the labour force were common to those of men. The country had grown in the last decade at an average growth rate of 7 per cent, which had stopped at the beginning of the Asian financial crisis. Now, Chile was facing a decrease in the growth rate. There was an average increase of 100,000 new

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jobs every year, from which women had benefited most. In the last 10 years, women had an increased rate of participation in the labour force -- twice as much as men.

In general, the country had not had high productivity rates, she continued. The provision of skills for the labour force had been a problem. Chile had a flexible and fairly deregulated labour situation. In general, the Chilean labour force did not have above 11 per cent trade union participation.

Unmarried women worked far more than married women, she said. Those with two or more children tended to leave the job market earlier. The two problems which had to be overcome to increase women's access to the job market were training and childcare. It was intended to conclude the current Government period with 80,000 newly trained young people. Training school was free of charge. The Government, concerned about the issue, had changed laws, increasing access to training. Also, training contracts had been set up, whereby employers could carry out training with young people who were about to lose their jobs.

Most reforms dealing with access to the labour market were presently focused on training, she said. Most of them dealt with the working conditions of women, an area in which some progress had been made. In general, the working class, as a whole, had a problem with the precariousness of jobs. Among the reforms was the elimination of the prohibition of night work for women. One third of working women in Chile did night work. Also, the rules and regulations on the work day had been reformed. The impact of the protective norms had been greater on women than on men. As mentioned earlier, when one did not know of his or her rights, it was the same as if those rights did not exist. In the last four years, campaigns had been carried out to inform women workers of their rights.

With regard to the wage differentials, Chile did not have regulations on a minimum wage for work of equal value done by both men and women, she said. There was a gender component there, but that differentiation existed among all the male and female workers in the country.

Chile's bill on sexual harassment took into account the problems in the workplace and did not include those in schools and prisons, she said. That bill was only four years old and was in its initial steps towards adoption.

With regard to women workers and maternity benefits, she said that Chile had, since 1924, norms stipulating the obligation of employers who had 20 or more female workers to have a day nursery for children. That meant that employers had to provide a nursery at the workplace or pay for one outside. Employers often used that situation to justify not having 20 women or to justify the wage gap between men and women. Workers themselves had admitted that employers did not comply with that norm. What to do with the children of

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seasonal workers and women who rotated employment was another issue to consider. Recently, 61 per cent of newly created jobs were precarious in nature, in that it was seasonal or fixed-term employment.

She said that Chile had a private health system and private health insurance, which were discriminatory, since they were bound by market rules. Those that had lower employment were not of interest to those companies. Women's plans were more expensive, since they were subject to market conditions. The public health system had improved substantially. All women of low wages and inactive women were covered by the national health fund, which was improving constantly. It was hoped that it would soon provide the same benefits, both in quality and quantity, as the private health sector.

Chile, for 15 years now, had a special system of old age security, she went on. All workers who had entered the labour force since 1983 formed part of that private pension system, which was based on the individual savings of the taxpayers. Many changes were being carried out in terms of profitability, transparency and information.

Ms. BILBAO said that Chile was the only country in the western hemisphere that lacked a divorce law. In 1995, a parliamentary group had presented a motion for such a law that was discussed and later adopted by the Chamber of Deputies. That bill had not yet been adopted by the Senate. Just as with the filiation law, SERNAM was lobbying senator by senator to try to present the bill in the second part of the year. The divorce law might exist by the end of the year. Aspects being considered included the complete dissolution of marital ties, and measures to ensure that while divorce would not be easy, it should not be so cumbersome as to hurt the women and children involved.

A bill was just going to the Senate regarding sexual crimes, which she presumed would become law next month, containing provisions on rape and sexual abuses, she said. Parliament and SERNAM had been working for close to four years on the bill. Marriageable age was 18 years for both sexes. Minors could marry with authorization from their parents, but new legislation would make the minimum age 16, for both sexes.

Prisons had space for girl children and adolescent girls, she said. There were campaigns to enable women in prison to successfully re-enter civil life. Children could stay with imprisoned mothers up to the age of two, and longer in special circumstances. On women in the armed forces, she said the situation had been changing. The army and the air force had women participating and Chile had the first female general in Latin America. Next year, women would be able to serve as military pilots. The navy was more complicated, because of the problem of serving on ships, but overall participation was becoming more broad.

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On questions regarding schools, she said there might have been confusion regarding drop-out rates. Actually, for basic education, only 7.2 per cent of boys and 7.7 per cent of girls were leaving school early. At the middle levels, the rate was 5.2 per cent for girls and 5.1 per cent for boys. The primary reason children left school was poverty. Boys generally left in order to go to work to help their families, and girls generally left to take care of the household while their parents worked.

She then suggested that the Committee invite representatives of the three branches of State power -- judicial, legislative and executive -- to make presentations on implementation of the Convention. As each were autonomous, the executive branch, which she represented, could not force the others to report on the problems and initiatives. Some would welcome the chance, while others would feel pressured, but even that would be helpful.

AIDA GONZALEZ of Mexico, the Committee's Chairperson, thanked the delegation for its frank responses. She commended SERNAM's legislative and programmatic activities. The recent constitutional amendment was a significant achievement. The new law on filiation for children reflected years of tenacious effort. The degree and significance of problems were being recognized, in reflection of real political will.

Summing up Committee members' concerns, she said that a sexual assault law was extremely important, but sexual harassment must also be addressed in other areas. Norms and regulations for working women also affected the family, since when women took on remunerative work, that affected their development as individuals and that of their children.

Several experts had expressed concern about unemployment among young women, she continued. Other serious concerns pertained to family law, the problem of property rights, divorce, the problems and impact of adolescent pregnancy on education and human rights, the prohibition on abortion and its impact on human rights, health and the right to life, and the problem of spousal consent for sterilization.

Experts has also expressed concern about indigenous and rural women, and women in vulnerable situations, such as those in prisons, she went on. Important work was being done for rural women and that should continue. Regarding inviting other branches of government to report, she said the Committee would welcome their participation, but it was up to States parties to decide who represent them.

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For information media. Not an official record.