September 19, 2022
‘A feminist utopia was possible’: what went wrong for Chile’s gender-equal constitution
By Agustina Ordoqui
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On September 4, Chile overwhelmingly rejected the most progressive – and most feminist – constitution ever written. In a referendum, 62% of voters chose “rechazo” (reject) over “apruebo” (approve) when presented with a new national charter.
The proposed consitution mandated full gender parity in official positions and enshrined access to abortion as a human right. It also consecrated access to education, health and housing, and recognised the rights of care workers. The constitution was designed to replace the text inherited from Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Its genesis was in the mass demonstrations of October 2019, when protestors took to the streets first to oppose then-president Sebastián Piñera, and then to demand the remaking of the country’s entire political, economic and social system.
In 2020, 78% of the nation voted to launch the process of writing a new constitution, a task given to an elected gender-equal convention of 154 citizens. Two years later, two-thirds of the country rejected the convention’s vision for the future of the country – why? Some blame a wave of misinformation about what was actually in the constitution, including around the document’s most feminist measures. Far-right politician Felipe Kast falsely claimed, for example, that the new constitution would guarantee abortion up to nine months of pregnancy.
In the wake of the defeat, Impact spoke to Jeniffer Mella, one of the members who brought a feminist voice to the constitutional convention. From the costal region of Coquimbo, she was the only lesbian member of the constituent body. An activist since the age of 20, she says she joined the convention because « I wanted to include intersectionality.”
Mella shared her reflections on what the world can learn from the referendum, and told us what Chilean feminists plan to do next.
Agustina Ordoqui: What would Chile be like today if “apruebo” had won?
Jeniffer Mella: It would have been a country in which women took on a new role. We dreamed of another starting point, redirecting the country towards a different kind of society based on new rules. We have been living in a fragmented state, which through its public policies excludes many communities, and especially women, from decision-making.
Agustina Ordoqui: What made you want to participate in this process as a constituent, and how will you continue to work for a new constitution from now on?
Jeniffer Mella: As a lesbian feminist activist living in a region of Chile that is not a metropolitan area, I considered that I could make a contribution and also represent peasant women and fisherwomen who live differently than a woman who has had all the opportunities in life. I wanted to include that intersectionality. So I discussed it with my partner and my daughter, and decided to participate.
Now, we have to digest the defeat. We have to make sufficient and necessary self-criticisms. If the conclusion is that we were wrong, we will do something else, but never stop. If the diagnosis is that we lacked support, we will have to continue to build majorities. But I am confident that no matter what, we will continue.
Agustina Ordoqui: Why do you think the new constitution was rejected?
Jeniffer Mella: The process was as important as the result, and the process became very dirty. The constituents were not able to see this because we were locked in very intense work, up to 15 hours a day. We did not have institutional support, nor did we know how to seek it, nor did we have the time to communicate what we were doing.
I believe the composition of the constituent convention contributed to this: only 59 out of 154 members were political party activists – the remaining 95 were independents. So our representation wasn’t correlated to Chilean political parties, who could have helped us to shape what was defined in the constitution and to communicate it. There was a huge communication problem, and we let the conservatives take over the agenda.
There’s also a tendency to reject in Chile: first, the vote to reject the 1980 constitution in the 2020 referendum; then, the vote for the constituents was a rejection of political parties; not wanting the Congress to do it was a rejection of institutionality; and now they have rejected [the new constitution] – so there is no logic other than rejection. To have worked thinking that, whatever the product was, it would be approved if it was better than what we had before, regardless of effective communication – that was fiercely innocent.
Agustina Ordoqui: Constitutional enshrinement of equality between women and men, sexual and gender diversity, gender parity in democratic instutions, the right to a life free of violence, the recognition of domestic and care work, equal labour rights in a country where women earn 28% less than men – these are really the foundations of a gender-sensitive state. Was Chile close to achieving a feminist utopia?
Jeniffer Mella: Yes, we were close. I think it was a dream, those things that you had the opportunity to do and you try to achieve. But at the end of the day we realised that we fought with very weak weapons in a battle that required much greater logistical support. If there was an opportunity like that again, or if I could go back in time, I would mount a communications campaign from the beginning to reach every part of the country. I think a feminist utopia was possible, but there was brutal misinformation. If I were to go back in time, I would do it differently. The same work, but with different communication.
Agustina Ordoqui: Do you think conservatives will present a new constitutional text, and do you think they will do it with a gender perspective in mind?
Jeniffer Mella: I don’t think there will be a new constitution like this one. The right openly opposed it because it eradicated their established privileges. And it is not only the right, but also an important part of the Chilean elite who are involved in politics. I don’t think we will have a good new constitution, because ‘good’ for the rightmeans that it doesn’t take away their privileges, nor does it prevent the abuse of the market that the neoliberal system has allowed in Chile. Feminist movements are going to have to show that we are not going to take a single step backwards.
Agustina Ordoqui: In Chile, abortion is only legal in cases of risk to life, foetal abnormality or rape. Last year, congress rejected a bill to fully decriminalise it in all circumstances. After the failure of the new constitution, how can activists push to guarantee this right?
Jeniffer Mella: It will be difficult. It is the culmination of the feminist struggle for sexual and reproductive rights, and I think that first we will have to explore other manifestations of sexual and reproductive autonomy, such as the right to motherhood for women who have to pay for fertility treatments, for example, lesbians or single women. Unfortunately, I think that abortion is the last thing we are going to get in Chile. If you ask me what the most difficult thing is, the most difficult thing is abortion.
Agustina Ordoqui: Meanwhile, Chile is still ruled by Pinochet’s constitution, which doesn’t even mention women…
Jeniffer Mella: Saying that all people are born free and equal in dignity and rights sweeps under the rug all those who are not considered in this universal character based on men. This doesn’t take into consideration any of our particularities, experiences or burdens that we face. The 1980 constitution discriminates against women and puts a ceiling on our political and social participation without even considering us. We are subordinated subjects. Also, the constitution “protects the life of the unborn”, therefore, it gives us a mandate to reproduce.
Agustina Ordoqui: Do you think the rejection is a blow to feminism?
Jeniffer Mella: Yes. The fact that it was a constitution that established parity in democracy with such force, which not only included women, but also sexual diversity, is the result of the parity in the convention itself. It was also the feminists who promoted the measures in favour of the elderly and children. A lot of the blame [for the rejection] will be attributed to women, especially feminists. I said during the process that I was afraid that there would be a witch hunt if the No vote won. I think that whatever comes now is going to be a very strong opposition to our struggles and demands. That’s why it is important to draw the line that from here, we are not going to back down. We still have a lot to fight for.
This issue of Impact was prepared by Agustina Ordoqui, Anna Pujol-Mazzini and Megan Clement.
Impact is financed by the New Venture Fund.
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