On November 25th, women of all ages clogged the streets of Santiago, Chile to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Thousands shouted “No Means No” as they marched through Bernardo O’Higgins Avenue, French-owned independent news network France24 reported. This march represents a powerful rebuke to the forces plotting to rescind or abolish hard-won rights for Chilean women. But it alone is not enough. Three days later, the Chilean Ministry of Women and Gender Equality announced that 35 femicides had taken place this year and another 143 were thwarted throughout the country.
Protestor Maria Jesus told Morning Star that far-right candidate José Antonio Kast’s victory in the first round of the presidential election prompted her to join the march. Kast, the son of a Nazi army veteran and himself an ardent Augusto Pinochet supporter, pledged to scrap the Ministry of Women and restrict access to abortion.
The Pinochet regime, which imprisoned 41,470 dissidents across 1,168 concentration camps and detention centres, is partly responsible for institutionalizing a culture of violence against women. In one infamous detention centre, nicknamed “Sexy Blindfold” because detainees were always blindfolded, DINA (Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional; secret police) agents raped, electrocuted, and asphyxiated dozens of women. Open Democracy notes that these agents even trained a German Shepard dog to rape inmates. The Sin Tregua report, published in 2008, exposed this barbaric torture’s widespread use during the 70’s and 80’s. Yet vivid testimonies from survivors convey that this regime-sanctioned sexual sadism reflected what law professor Caroline Davidson calls an ingrained “acceptance of violence against women” in Chilean society.
The horrors of Pinochet’s dictatorship have not gone away. Chilean security forces continue to harass, mistreat, and torture women with wanton impunity. In October 2019, public transport fare protests sparked a brutal reaction. Multiple human rights and feminist organizations accused the Chilean Special Forces, National Police, and military of committing heinous sexual abuse. A psychologist based in Santiago told Truthout that “[all the] women who have been arrested were stripped naked in front of men… All of them have been touched in the genitals … several have had either the tip or the butt of a rifle inserted in their vagina and … [were] told they will be raped.” Amnesty International reported that the Chilean Public Prosecutor’s Office recorded at least 16 complaints of sexual assault or rape by security personnel at the time, although the real total is likely to have been far higher.
Chilean police and mercenaries routinely inflict extreme violence on women in the Mapuche indigenous community as well. Chilean authorities, often in collaboration with transnational companies, spearhead ruthless intimidation and coercion campaigns against female Mapuche activists struggling to keep their ancestral lands free from corporate exploitation. Macarena Valdés, a protest leader who opposed the construction of a hydroelectric plant, was found hanging from a kitchen ceiling by her son in August 2016. Police pathologists concluded that Valdés had committed suicide, but a private autopsy revealed that she was dead before being hanged. Her husband and countless other Mapuche activists are convinced that individuals affiliated with RP Global, the Austrian hydropower giant, were involved in her death, according to DW News. This case is a fitting illustration of how Chilean authorities use indigenous women “as disposable warnings” to Mapuche who dare resist the pillaging and environmental degradation of their territory, Spanish and Portuguese studies scholar Kirsten Sippola says.
State violence against women is compounded by an epidemic of domestic violence. Yet intimate partners, husbands, and other family members who harm or murder women are rarely punished. The Chilean Network Against Violence Against Women alleges that 73% of femicide cases between 2010 and 2019 remain unresolved, TeleSur notes. Additionally, urban studies scholar Jana Korn says that out of 407 respondents, about 72% claim to have been victims of sexual violence while using public transportation in Santiago.
Violent crime plagues adult women, adolescents, and girls from every social class in Chile. Feminist groups like Red Chilena, Human Corporation, the Observatory Against Street Harassment, and the Institute of Women Foundation must double their efforts to remind the Chilean judiciary, and society at large, that anti-femicide laws are not just for show. If implemented decisively, these laws dissuade potential offenders and can save lives.
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