Students at more than twenty universities have left classes and occupied campuses over the past few months, demanding greater measures of protection in the wake of numerous harassment claims against professors. Last week, a larger central protest broke out in Santiago and thousands marched for female rights.
They are demanding changes in policy, since universities in Chile are not legally required to have sexual harassment policies in place. But what’s really fueling the protests has roots that run much deeper than the college campus issues.
“Machismo and Latin American countries go hand in hand,” reflects Jose Luis Poblete, English Language lecturer at USACH. “Usually men are in authoritative positions, and in the university we can really see this. All of the Deans in Chile are men. They make the decisions that affect everybody. This isn’t now only about feminism, but sexual orientation, gender identities—things need to change.”
Machismo culture is also apparent in the current predominantly male, conservative ruling class of Chile, which opposes progressive gender law and LGBTQ rights. Women here had to fight one of the strictest abortion policies in the world, which finally became only slightly more lenient last year under the previous progressive administration. From government policy to unwanted sexual harassment, women continue the need to lobby and be heard.
No one anticipated the latest demonstration would come this far, but student solidarity, frustration, and outrage have been building. Three years ago, the Argentine-born #NiUnaMenos movement spread across Latin America as women demanded an end to male violence and femicide. Last year’s #MeToo encouraged millions of women worldwide to share their stories of sexual abuse and take action against it.
Sofia Brito, a law student at Universidad de Chile, has been waiting for nearly a year for her university to take action after she accused a professor of unwanted and inappropriate advances in August of 2017. Brito was involved in female rights campaigns throughout her entire student career, and never expected to be subjected to the exact plights she was fighting against.
“Many of us were involved with NiUnaMenos. It taught us what it was to be a feminist—before that, feminism was something that we viewed as outsiders,” Brito says. “We knew feminism from the 80s—it was more like history for us than something we were actually living.” For her and many others, history became a current, undeniable reality.
Law school students at the university have now gone on strike, demanding to know why the professor is still teaching despite being under investigation. “Without a resolution to this case,” Brito adds, “and to all the other similar cases happening, other students just said, ‘That is enough. This is a reason to protest.'”
The high profile of Brito’s unresolved case, against such a prominent professor at a prestigious university, ignited the protest and resonated throughout Chile. Since then, faculties and universities across the country have begun to occupy their campuses to fight against machismo and demand that sexual harassment complaints be taken seriously.
“Students need to be heard and, at a university level, striking is the only way to create changes.” says Poblete. While striking is therefore not uncommon in Chile, the magnitude and duration of this particular movement is startling. Classes at USACH have been indefinitely suspended for weeks.
Strikes continued to erupt throughout the country in June. Student organizations across the country are working collectively to present a formal process for universities that will effectively condemn and castigate incidents of manipulation or abuse of power. They also submitted a letter to the government requesting the resignation of Education Minister Gerardo Varela, who referred to the students’ plights as “small humiliations.”
“The strike is not just about my case” says Brito, …”but all the cases made by fellow students, who couldn’t report them because of the failures in the current procedures.”