Female students occupy universities over sexual abuse

Thousands of female students are occupying facilities at Chilean universities up and down the country, demanding non-sexist education and an end to sexual harassment and abuse.

The first of these protests was triggered several weeks ago at Universidad Austral de Chile (UACh) in Valdivia in southern Chile by the transfer to another post of a researcher at the Institute of Biochemistry and Microbiology, found guilty of gravely harassing a female administrator. Students are asking for him to be dismissed.

A series of take-overs and strikes at Chilean universities around the sexual harassment issue first began in 2017, but the measures taken to address the problem were found to be lacking. This time round, female students are asking for the proper enforcement of sexual abuse protocols and for specific measures to address the causes of female harassment and abuse.

“The sexual harassment protocols instituted or being instituted in most Chilean universities have proved inadequate to guarantee the safety of women,” Valentina Gatica, president of UACh’s Students’ Federation, tells University World News. Gatica is in her fifth year of studies in geography.

Her view is shared by female strikers at other universities. An example is the communiqué issued recently by Universidad Tecnológica Metropolitana’s students. In it they complain that several accusations of sexual abuse are at a dead end and that “the normal channels for denouncing abuses were inefficient and did not solve our problems”.

Their disillusionment with existing measures to cope with the problem is shared by female students and, in some cases, by female teachers and administrative staff from all the universities currently on strike. We “agree that existing institutional mechanisms are insufficient to resolve gender problems”, female academics from Universidad de Chile (UCH) said in a public communiqué addressed to their students dated 3 May.

At UCH’s Law School, the most prestigious in the country, UCH female law students went on strike on 27 April over a case of alleged harassment of a student by Carlos Carmona, ex-president of Chile’s Constitutional Tribunal. Eight months after the student made the allegations the university sanctioned the accused professor for “lack of administrative probity”.

Enraged, female students went on strike, and the student who alleged she was the victim of abuse took the case to the national court of appeals, which on 7 May asked UCH to hand over the record of the inquiry.

“Administrative summaries (which rule public universities such as UCH) are ill-suited for investigating sexual abuse which (in Chilean law) is only typified and sanctioned in labour relations; but teacher-student relations are not labour relations,” explains Carmen Andrade, director of UCH’s gender unit.

“The upshot is that sexually abused students are left out on a limb: they cannot reject the prosecutor assigned to their case, they cannot know the contents of the summary, they cannot appeal against the sentence.”

According to data from the UCH's directorate of sexual equality, 15% of students say they have been subjected to sexual violence on the university premises. There is an equal number of students and teachers that have suffered sexual harassment, but in the cases of sexual abuse against female students the perpetrators have mainly been male students.

The protests have highlighted the constraints faced by public universities in providing effective redress. In some cases, the protocols and supporting measures, such as psychologists for the victims, have become insufficient to deal with an unexpected increase in sexual harassment cases. At UACh the number of allegations has gone from five a year, when their protocol was introduced in 2015, to around 100 last year.

The increase can be explained, Gatica says, because, with a protocol in place, more students have dared to speak out against abuse. Also, the passing of a protocol has given more visibility to the problem.

Cultural transformation

“At female student meetings, questions arose about what were incorrect or violent practices; and awareness was raised about stereotypes that place women in a subdued position or land them in less prestigious and worse paid careers,” Gatica adds.

Gender secretariats, created by most universities five to six years ago, also paved the way for the current feminist explosion. The secretariats went from being a focal point for denouncing sexual harassment and abuse to places where gender relations were examined and debated and actions tending towards gender equality were devised.

“Universities have made positive changes in the past few years, but they have not understood and taken care of gender violence as a structural phenomenon that cannot be solved by mere sanctions and protocols,” says Gatica.

Andrade adds that what is needed “is a cultural transformation in every nook and cranny of the universities … Sexual tensions and violence will not be eradicated unless we see it as a problem that affects us all.”

Eliminating sexism is a key point of convergence for female students from all universities. Sexism is a broad concept that goes from modifying the male-biased language used by teachers in the classroom, including jokes targeting females, to the inclusion of more women authors in course bibliographies.

Other proposed measures include gender courses in all study plans, mandatory training on gender equality issues for teachers and administrative staff, the provision of trained officers to deal with complaints of sexual offences and the appointment of more women in leading roles, such as rectors or deans.

“All relevant posts are occupied by men. Men are in charge of dictating the most important subjects. This is much more evident in faculties such as engineering,” says Luna Mancilla, who is in charge of communications at Universidad de Concepción’s students’ federation.

Female students admit that changing macho culture in their places of study is a long haul but emphasise that universities must make a start. After all, they are educational centres. It is therefore their responsibility “to think, reflect and act inside their university premises to transform gender relations in the whole of society”, historian Luna Follegati, a gender specialist, tells University World News.

“The final aim is that graduates stop replicating sexist attitudes in their professional life,” she says, adding that “non-sexist education implies a more complex and radical transformation which requires a new way of thinking and dealing with each other”.

“We must look into how universities are reproducing unequal relations between the sexes, that is, look at the underlying reasons for sexual violence and abuse.”

On 14 May El Dinamo reported that 127 students at UCH’s Law School had issued a letter calling for, among many other things, a halt to “violence that is perpetuated through education ... keeping women ... in a position of inferiority and vulnerability”. The letter includes male-chauvinist sentences collected among students.

One of several reads: "We must demand more from ugly women than from pretty ones, who – though silly – they will find a husband all the same whereas nobody can bear a woman who is ugly and stupid."

Faculty assemblies have decided the level of participation of male students in the take-overs. In some of them it is mixed but in others only women are allowed to participate.

The gender issue is here to stay in Chile’s higher education system: 'For a non-sexist education’ will be the theme of the first national demo called by the Confederation of Chilean Students on 16 May.