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Interview with Claudia Pascual.. Santiago is on the verge of landmark legislation to bring women’s pay, rights and opportunities in line with those of men.

The other half of the new Chile

Chile is about to implement a new institutional framework that could bring the treatment of women on par with treatment of men at every level of government. Leading the effort is The National Women’s Service (or SERNAM, the Spanish acronym), a government organization charged with creating gender equality.

“The treatment of women will improve significantly before the end of President [Michelle] Bachelet’s term,” said Claudia Pascual, director of the organization, during a recent visit to Italy.

Minister Pascual, a trained anthropologist, is representative of both the feminist and the student movements. She was elected within the Communist Party, which is also part of the government coalition.

On March 8, Bachelet enacted the law to create a new Ministry of Women and Gender Equality, currently under implementation. And just on Tuesday, the president presented a new law to Parliament to be discussed with expediency (30 days maximum) about the decriminalization of abortion, which was approved in September by the Health Commission of the House, but has been postponed again.

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What will be the task of the new Ministry of Women and Equal Opportunities?

The goal is to put equality between women and men at the highest level of public policy. The task of the ministry is to design, coordinate and evaluate policies and programs to promote and achieve equality and equal opportunity and, of course, try to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.

What is the situation of women today, and what are the expected changes?

There is no doubt that the situation of women in our country has improved compared to 20, 40 or 60 years ago. However, there is still much to be done to reach full equality with men.

For example, in Chile, the employment rate of women reached 48.1 percent in June of this year, while that of men is over 75 percent. Women earn between 26 and 33 percent less than men for the same jobs. Almost 1.3 million women do not have a salary; they work inside the walls of the home taking care of children or sick family members or the elderly. In 2013, one in three women stated they were victims of psychological, sexual and physical abuse. Women account for only 15.8 percent of the Parliament, even though we are the most active in all social, territorial and political organizations. We are under-represented in all economic and political decision-making arenas, even though we are 52.7 percent of the population.

Therefore, the Agenda for Equal Opportunity in the Government that President Bachelet tries to promote vigorously, seeks the physical, economic and political autonomy of women, recovering and recognizing the diversity of the women who live in the country. We want to promote a culture that puts an end to stereotypes and discriminating prejudices. We want to end President Bachelet’s term with more rights to women to improve their quality of life.

What will be the relationship with women from other countries, like Venezuela, where there has been great progress in the field of rights and equal opportunities?

Chile, which created the National Women’s Service 24 years ago, has been working within international treaties and in its relation with all countries and coordinating entities for the exchange of experiences that would allow progress toward greater equality for women.

For example, Chile was one of the first Latin American countries to establish an institution for equal opportunity (SERNAM) and up to a year ago, we watched as other countries were advancing in setting up the institutions and rights. For this program, the government of the president first set the Agenda for Gender Equality and sent the bill that would create the Ministry of Women and Gender Equality, only 16 days after the start of her mandate.

Therefore, we will continue to participate in coordination activities and control mechanisms for women’s rights that allow exchange with Latin American and Caribbean countries, as well as the rest of the world. The battle for women’s rights is not only a national task, but a world task. It is a fight for human rights.

Chile is discussing how to change the Pinochet constitution. What is your position about it? The popular organizations demand a constitutional process…

Chile needs a new constitution, built on the basis of a broad and participated debate, paving the way for content to be consecrated in this Magna Carta. As a government, we are committed to promote a participatory, institutional and democratic process. A few weeks ago, the president called for the start of a constitutional process, with extensive information available to the public and civic education of citizens on constitutional debates.

We want the constitutional debate to focus on the content and opportunities of a new constitution, not just the mechanics of the debate. We encourage not only experts, but the largest number of citizens to participate. For this, the president has asked to begin a process in which citizens can express their opinion through dialogue, proposals and discussions. And above all, since we women are 52.7 percent of the population, we can make a vital leading contribution to ensure that equality between the sexes is debated in the new constitution.

Student movements are not happy with the Education Act. What’s happening? What progress has been made, ​​and what are the weaknesses of the Bachelet government?

The transformation of public education into a high-quality public education, free and non-profit, all the way up to higher education, is a profound, complex work that requires many resources and needs to be addressed in full. According to the economic reality of the country, the government is committed to start offering in March 2016 free higher education to 50 percent of the most vulnerable students in institutions accredited by the state. While this seems obvious for many countries, in Chile it is not, as both public and private education are not free. In order to change this feature, we need the exchange of opinions and interests.

In Latin America, some historical and border issues create problems in international relations and in relations with social movements. That’s the case for Chile and the route to the sea for landlocked Bolivia…

Chile’s policy to manage relations with other countries is to fully comply with treaties. We have a treaty with Bolivia in force since 1904. The government has expressed its willingness to dialogue and to manage international relations, based on respect to international treaties and international law.

Chile is the center of commercial and political relations with the United States in the Pacific Alliance. What happens with the bloc of liberal and socialist countries that participate in other cooperative alliances, like the ALBA?

Chile follows an economic and trade policy of open regionalism. We are part of MERCOSUR and the Pacific Alliance, and as a government, we are promoting dialogue between the two instances of integration, because the government of Chile does not consider them as rivals, but complementary.

After the Sept. 11, 1973, coup in Chile, many today, even in the alliance government, defend the coup plotters who are seeking to overthrow the socialist Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. Why?

The government does not defend coups. We know very well the terror of military dictatorships and human rights violations. We are respectful of the internal processes of each country. We believe in the right of every country to choose its own political system, and we believe in the respect of human rights and democracy.