Leaving a legacy: a brief look back at the legal initiatives of Michelle Bachelet's tenure in Chile
‘During my lifetime, I realised that discrimination was not accidental, that there were structural roots and causes to it. So if we wanted to change women’s lives, we need to deal with those root causes.’
Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, 2012
By Brittany Hernández (Legal Researcher, the Americas)
As Michelle Bachelet prepares for her departure from Chile’s ‘La Moneda,’ or the Presidential Palace in Santiago, after her second term in office (2014-2018), she leaves behind an influential precedent established with the motive to enhance women’s rights and equality through a number of legislative reforms. A fiercely conservative country, heavily influenced by the Catholic Church and right-wing parties, Chile maintained its status as one of the most restrictive countries in recent history to control women’s sexual and reproductive rights regarding abortion. That is, until recently.
As the first female president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet first took office from 2006 to 2010. After her first term ended, she went on to assist in the founding of the United Nations Women (UN Women) organisation (formerly the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, UNIFEM) and became the first Executive Director in 2011. She was again elected as president of Chile in March 2014 for a second, non-consecutive term. During her second term in office, she spearheaded a number of legal reforms that petitioned to restructure women’s rights and equality in Chile. Some of her notable accomplishments include modifying the country’s abortion laws; creating a path for recognised civil unions for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Intersex (LGBTI) community; and the creation of a Ministry of Women and Gender Equality (2016) that would advocate and oversee legislation that enforces equal pay for women and men; encourage higher representation of women in government, increase advocacy for women affected by gender-based violence, and much more.
Before taking presidential office, she served as the Chilean Minister of Health in 2000 and worked on legislation that helped distribute sexual and reproductive health resources to women and girls, thrusting her into the spotlight for a number of similar controversial issues she would later embrace during her presidency with regard to women’s sexual health. She continued to raise awareness for these new laws, encouraging women to take advantage of the resources freshly available, including emergency contraceptives and confidential education about family planning.
Perhaps her most controversial initiative pushed for the relaxation of the laws regarding the country’s complete abortion ban. Prior to 2017, Chile had enforced a blanket ban on the practice of abortion and criminalised it without special attention to particular circumstances, which included all individuals involved in such activities (i.e. private individuals, medical professionals assisting in the procedures, etc.). Bachelet then introduced a bill to Congress to further decriminalise the act under special cases such as rape, risk to the mother’s life, or if the foetus should be feared to be born as a stillborn. In 2017, the bill passed and was later enacted as a law, challenging the legal status-quo and opening the social dialogue for women’s access to adequate sexual and reproductive rights in Chile.
In addition to the push for relaxed abortion laws, other issues that Bachelet put under legal review included the passing of a civil union bill that sought to give more rights to same-sex couples. Following the success of the civil union bill, she encouraged Congress to further consider a marriage equality bill that would ensure gay couples maintained similar rights without discrimination based on sexuality. Though this bill has yet to pass through Congress, Bachelet’s determination to boost sexual and gender equality proves relevant to the changing social and political climate Chile has faced during the past few years.
In her last days as president, Bachelet, once again, challenged outdated practices that separated the pay gap between men and women. To combat this issue, she proposed a new constitution that would seek to replace the outdated, dictatorship-era constitution that continues to govern Chile to this day. One of the key changes that her new constitution calls for is an enforced equal pay between men and women.
Over the course of Michelle Bachelet’s administration, she has directly challenged a number of issues with successful and proposed legal reforms to encourage the development of women’s rights in Chile. With the achievements of her role in the decriminalisation of partial abortions, calls for protection of the LGBTI community and many more, she has thoroughly instilled herself as an influential leader within the global women’s movement as an activist for change. As Mr. Sebastian Piñera resumes a second term in office after Bachelet, the women of Chile can only continue to hope that Bachelet’s initiatives will tread through on to the next generations for the betterment of women’s rights across Chile, Latin America, and the world.