Universities and the year of the feminist uprising

2018 left a profound mark on most Latin American societies and will probably be remembered as the year of the feminist uprising. Massive civil demonstrations, ongoing public debate and proposals of policy reforms have shaken the long-established roots of commonsensical Latin American machismo.

Normalised behaviours such as street and work harassment have been questioned. Latin American universities have become the locus of demonstrations that demand the end of discriminatory practices and the start of a truly non-sexist education.

Feminist demonstrations pushing for changes in higher education took place in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay.

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Women students started to publicly denounce sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination from perpetrators that belong to the academic community: professors, classmates and staff.

Likewise, they revealed how universities were not prepared (and sometimes, were unwilling) to deal with these normalised abuses of power. Crass comments from professors to female students regarding their outfits made newspaper headlines in Chile, as did sexual harassment cases in Peru and Mexico.

Marching with the sisterhood

Chile was probably the country in which the activism in universities was most widespread. Students organised all-female assemblies and discussion fora with professors and staff to foster sisterhood and assess the state of affairs regarding discrimination and violence against women on university campuses.

More than 200,000 women marched in May 2018 on the streets of Santiago and other cities demanding a non-sexist education and an end to violence against women. Many schools and universities were occupied by women students in takeovers that lasted from a few days to over a month.

In every instance, students presented petitions to authorities outlining their conditions for ending occupations in several schools. The list of demands usually included the reformulation of protocols regarding sexual abuse and harassment, the establishment of offices of diversity, the registration of transgender students under their self-identified first names and the advancement of a non-sexist education.

This last point implied several actions, such as gender mainstreaming in university curricula, the creation of mandatory courses on gender and queer studies, affirmative action for women professors and mentorship programmes for women students.

Chilean universities have glass ceilings similar to those of societies in the North, only worse. Women make up almost half of adjunct professors and a little over a third of assistant professors, but their numbers decline sharply in tenured categories and are almost entirely absent from authority positions.

Some universities have started to take action on these issues: they have negotiated with students and pledged to advance crucial reforms. It is still too early to know whether the promised changes will lead to meaningful institutional and cultural change, but if they do not, the movement will likely continue and the authorities will probably face new upheavals.

Sexual abuse and harassment

The events that triggered actions from feminist demonstrations to forceful takeovers of schools were similar across Latin American countries: widespread sexual abuse and harassment that used to be normalised and condoned, as well as the perception that institutions of higher education protected perpetrators.

Hashtags such as #NoNosCallamosMas (we no longer shut up), #MePasoEnLaUCR (it happened to me at the University of Costa Rica), #YoTeCreo (I believe you) and #HermanaYoTeCreo (sister, I believe you) took the protests from the streets and university halls to social networks and media.

These protests converged with public demonstrations and feminist activism that have been operating in the region for the past couple of years, such as the #NiUnaMenos (not one woman less) movement in favour of sexual reproductive rights and against the increasing number of femicides.

The response from universities focused mostly on establishing protocols and regulations for denouncing sexual harassment and abuse.

In some cases, activists also reported persecutions or threats designed to force them to stop or renounce their protests. Despite the progress evidenced in universities’ new recognition of the severity of abuse and harassment, the new protocols mostly generated a lukewarm reception in the feminist movement.

Even though 2018 was a watershed, the feminist wave in Latin American universities was not born out of the blue. Historical feminist organisations were key players in organising demonstrations, occupations and massive campaigns of naming and shaming perpetrators.

The backlash, likewise, was also similar across nations. Feminist students report frequent persecution and bullying from fellow classmates, and, less frequently, intimidation from authorities that threaten them with university sanctions.

The public debate has polarised around the division between those who strive for diversity and those who oppose the so-called ‘gender ideology’ and support traditional values.

A big win for the backlash was the election of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazilian president in late 2018, who won with a strong nationalist appeal and campaigning against feminism, reproductive rights and sexual diversity.

Despite the strength of the backlash, the silver lining is that the 2018 protests led to an increased awareness of the deleterious effects of sexism among university administrators and the general public.

From outrageously high rates of femicides to everyday harassment in the streets and university halls and classrooms, the feminist movement is working on demolishing the underpinnings of these commonplace behaviours.

The jury is still out on whether this will translate into a permanent cultural change of norms or whether the backlash will prevail in Latin America.

Julieta Suárez-Cao and Alondra Arellano are researchers at the Institute of Political Science at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.