COHA’s Women’s Studies Series: SERNAM and the Underrepresentation of Women in Chile

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While the successful turnover of the Pinochet regime in 1989 presidential elections marked the formal beginning of civilian rule in Chile, it also brought on an important turning point in the relationship between civil organizations and the state. In focusing on the female sector, this transition has been shown to affect their movement in a number of ways. Though the women’s movement had presented a strong and often autonomous voice during the years of the Pinochet dictatorship, Chile’s transition to democracy began the institutionalization of women’s issues within society, changing the way that their demands were processed as well as affecting the types of issues that came before public agencies.


El Servicio Nacional de la Mujer (SERNAM) is an important state-sanctioned institution that was created after the transition to democracy had begun, in order to address issues of gender equality in the social, economic, political, cultural, and familial spheres of everyday life (Richards, 2003, 42). However, while some might suggest that SERNAM actually provides important resources and a set of objectives around which the women’s movement has re-mobilized (Franceschet 2003), others suggest that SERNAM is limited in its scope, and therefore, does not adequately represent the concerns of the popular sector when pushing the government for certain policies and programs high on its agenda. In addressing this second claim, we hope to show that SERNAM functions as a conservative organization for the concerns of a limited portion of the popular sector, by discussing the non-inclusive nature of SERNAM’s policy proposals, its low level of autonomy from the state government, and the general channeling of the popular women’s movement through state-sanctioned intermediaries. The conclusion reached is that the transition has pushed civil society organizations and their mobilization capacity to operate within a state-directed and institutionalized political arena.

The Aylwin Years

In discussing the non-representative nature of SERNAM as a women’s organization, there is a need to first summarize the specific functions of the agency. President Aylwin created SERNAM in 1991 to address the unequal representation of women in the workplace, government positions, and aspects of social life. These goals are broad in scope, presenting the notion that success in these areas was naturally limited by their vague nature. While it is not a ministry itself, SERNAM is housed under the Ministry of Planning and Cooperation (MIDEPLAN), which addresses social issues such as poverty and social exclusion (Franceschet, 2003, 21). SERNAM’s indirect role in government restrains it from helping to enact legislation concerning equal representation of women. Instead, SERNAM addresses its goals by operating as an executive-level agency that channels the demands of women into policy suggestions for the other ministries within the Chilean government. SERNAM also establishes monetary funds that provide grants to certain organizations and programs. While it has been argued that SERNAM lacks oversight powers to direct the actions of MIDEPLAN or pass legislation (Waylen 2000), others have argued that SERNAM has gained powerful influence on the policy interests of other ministries in government. Therefore, while SERNAM is not a direct player in the decision-making process, it forms lateral relationships with each of the ministries in order to influence legislation and achieve funding for certain social programs.

The Mapuche

An emerging challenge to SERNAM’s mission of promoting equality in Chile lies in the increasing controversy surrounding the demands of different classes of women, specifically the indigenous Mapuche and the poor rural class of women, or pobladoras. Mapuche women are discussed here as an example of SERNAM’s limited representation in policy formation. As discussed in Patricia Richards’ article, the Mapuche women have been increasingly marginalized from the political and social spheres. Two studies from 2003 and 2006 serve to show that their lack of leverage is becoming a major discussion point in SERNAM’s agenda. The Mapuche women challenge the official gender discourse set out by SERNAM, arguing the point that women’s policies do not adequately address their specific discrimination concerns that arise within economic and political spheres. For example, in discussing her 2003 interviews with urban Mapuche women, Richards noted that, “Mapuche women are often not hired for jobs in which they would be attending the public because their physical characteristics do not accord with Chilean standards of beauty, which value ‘European’ features” (Richards, 2003, 50). However, while this quote reveals some of the specific complaints of the Mapuche women that are now becoming known to the public, SERNAM itself has not taken any meaningful steps to address Mapuche concerns in the last four years. For example, recent studies stress the existence of the same type of discrimination in the workplace, suggesting that little change has occurred addressing the specific needs of the Mapuche women. A 2006 interview by Richards revealed that Mapuche women continue to insist that, “not all women can be treated the same,” (Richards, 2006, 17) supporting the idea that race-specific discrimination continues to be a problem among the Mapuche. Therefore, SERNAM’s failure to address specific Mapuche women issues suggests that it excludes certain sectors of women’s movements from its action plans, leading to the notion that it continues to be unrepresentative of certain segments of popular society.

While job discrimination was a key complaint that the Mapuche women wanted SERNAM to address, they also protested their lack of adequate input into the decision-making processes within the organization. An example of this involves the two Equal Opportunities Plans (the first lasting from 1994 to 1999, the second from 2000 to 2010), in which proposed agendas were presented for the post-transitional Chilean government to evaluate. These plans stressed the importance of incorporating gender equality into governmental policy, such as legal reforms, education, and access to the labor market (Franceschet 2005, 129-130). However, the formulation of the first Plan raised considerable protest among the Mapuche women. While the elite women within the organization had been allowed their input within the formulation and revisions of the Plan, Mapuche women were excluded from this process. Instead, they were simply asked to register their approval of the changes, thus limiting their input in the decision-making processes within SERNAM.

Although the second plan revised the inadequate participation of the Mapuche women, they continue to protest the previous terms. For example, while the second plan incorporated ethnicity into the language of the document, it failed to address the complexities of different races, thus ignoring the demands of the Mapuche for race-specific legislation (Richards, 2003, 49). Therefore, the survival of these issues not only reveals that SERNAM failed to address the differences regarding the experiences with discrimination for the Mapuche women, but it also neglected to sufficiently represent their interests in the major decisions that were made concerning the list of issues for which SERNAM would lobby.

The Mapuche women’s long-maintained inferior political and social station within society demonstrates that SERNAM up to now has not been a particularly effective link between the state institutions and lower-class women’s groups within society. Yet, in comparing this lack of representation with the state’s general inhibitions on SERNAM, it consequently suggests that the latter’s policies are repeatedly co-opted by the state. Lisa Baldez, in her discussion of the impact of party politics on SERNAM policy, supports this notion, stating, “In creating the National Women’s Agency, government officials sought to appease the conservative opponents on the right and to limit the agency’s ability to maintain contact with organized women’s groups at the grassroots level” (Baldez, 2001, 16). From this quote, it becomes clear that the post-transition government feared the strength of the mobilized women’s movement, leading to at least one notion that SERNAM was created as a way to appease the mobilized women’s sector. However, the quote also alludes to the idea that specific restrictions were placed on SERNAM to check the powerful support it received from the mobilized women, such as the fact that it operates under the direction of a government ministry (MIDEPLAN) rather than possessing the ability to initiate legislation itself. In addition to these formal political restrictions the post-transition Chilean government purposely seems to have utilized other informal strategies to limit SERNAM’s capabilities. An example of a governmental constraint is the relatively limited allocation of resources to fund the activities undertaken by SERNAM. Budget analysis has consistently shown that less than 0.1% of the official total Chilean budget has been allocated to the organization since 1990, even going as far as to enact budget cuts at the Beijing Conference in 1995 (Baldez, 2001, 18). Therefore, the state instituted a powerful constraint on SERNAM’s ability to utilize its governmentally supplied resources for the purpose of mobilization and funding of special programs.

SERNAM’s Coalition Strategy

Due to the insufficient monetary resources coming from the government, SERNAM must seek ancillary funds from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other international organizations. Consequently, SERNAM tends to work with more generalized NGOs rather than directly with women-specific organizations (Waylen, 2000, 787). This creates a close relationship with certain NGOs, who in turn perform in-depth research for the organization, as well as set up specific programs for women. For example, SERNAM has provided funding for programs such as RIDEM, which establishes centers that provide women with information about their legal rights, and PROMEDU, an NGO which supports grassroots women’s organizations at a local level. In examining the role of RIDEM, Baldez states, “Because the centers were designed to make contact with women as individuals, and not as representatives of organizations, they further distanced SERNAM from the women’s movement” (Baldez, 2001, 15). This quote supports the notion that SERNAM works more closely with the heads of NGOs rather than women themselves. Although Franceschet argues that this strategy strengthens the women’s movement as a whole, the quest for funding leads SERNAM to focus on certain powerful, wealthy NGOs within Chilean society. This tendency provides an aspect of bias in representation, as shown in the case of the Mapuche. Because of the relative inefficiency of CONADI and the lack of a strong united Mapuche women’s organization, SERNAM has remained inconsistent in addressing their concerns.

Building Bridges

In addressing the issue of autonomy, it is necessary to examine it from two points of view: leadership and the conservative nature of the program and the policy proposals affecting it. SERNAM leadership is unusually close to the executive branch of Chilean government. For example, its director has the title of Minister of State and participates in the cabinet meetings with other ministries (Franceschet, 2003, 21). Thus, the head of the SERNAM organization is not only close to the president of Chile, but also represents the interests of the political party in power. SERNAM leadership has consistently been appointed from the same party as the elected President. Lisa Baldez presents evidence of this connection between SERNAM leadership and the reigning political party, noting that the first SERNAM director, Soledad Alvear, was from the Christian Democratic Party, the same party as the first post-authoritarian, administration, that of President Aylwin (Baldez, 2001, 17). While the following subdirectors of SERNAM, Soledad Larrain and Maria Teresa Chadwick, were both members of the Socialist Party, the director was consistently from the Christian Democratic Party (Baldez, 2001, 16-17). For example, PDC President Frei nominated Josefina Bilbao as Minister in 1994, also a member of the Christian Democratic Party. This trend carried on in 2000 when Ricardo Lagos, a Socialist Party (PS) presidential candidate, was backed by Concertación and was elected. Lagos appointed Adriana Puelma, who was not only a member of the PS, but had worked extensively on Lagos’ presidential campaign. These tendencies show that there is an alignment between the political party coloration of a given Chilean presidency and SERNAM directors, suggesting that it is no accident that SERNAM’s leadership is closely tied to the political party in power.
The similar party affiliations of the president of the day and SERNAM’s director’s political predilections suggest a level of consanguinity and influence that extends into the realm of organizational policy. Early gender equality measures reveal the relatively conservative nature of SERNAM’s policy proposals which appear to be more in conjunction with the centrist policies of the Christian Democratic Party than the socialists. Due to strong protests from the right concerning the creation of SERNAM, the first Concertacion government, under Christian Democratic leadership, restricted the organization’s policy areas to “low key” arenas such as female headship and strengthening the woman’s role within the family, while effectively steering the organization away from such archly political topics as abortion and divorce (Franceschet, 2005, 118; Buvinic, 279-280). While the controversy over SERNAM’s agenda occurred in the early 1990s, this trend has continued to the present. SERNAM continues to avoid addressing potentially controversial issues such as birth control, instead sticking to low-volatility issues. For example, as recently as 2007, SERNAM launched “No Violence Against Women” campaigns in each of the country’s 13 regions, condemning the unjust murders of women over the past year. Although the issue has received much media attention and sparked demonstrations in favor of the new campaign, domestic violence remains a relatively “safe” issue and has not sparked much controversy from rightist parties. This consideration leads to the notion that SERNAM continues to focus on relatively conservative issues that do not provoke protest from parties on the right, but are not exactly cutting-edge in nature.

SERNAM under Bachelet

SERNAM’s focus on domestic violence not only displays a conservative tendency in its selection of campaign themes, but also suggests a connection between party concerns and organizational policy. Interestingly, upon her election, President Michelle Bachelet (PS) appointed Laura Albornoz Pollman of the PDC as SERNAM Director. Whereas before SERNAM directors were consistently appointed from the party of the president, Bachelet’s choice of a PDC party member clearly strays from this tradition. While this change may suggest a more diverse, less parochial selection process that is no longer restricted to party affiliation, it must be taken into consideration, given the centrist stance of the PDC. The Christian Democratic Party is considerably more conservative than the more leftist Socialist Party, thus supporting the contention that party affiliation contributes to the conservative nature of SERNAM’s programs and policy suggestions. A recent article in a SERNAM publication, for example, advertised the launch of the No Violence Against Women Campaign in the Lake District, stating that,
“…The government is committed to educate the public about violence against women…we have all witnessed the femicidios that has happened in our country and region…and that is why the National Service for women wanted to launch this campaign” (Espinoza, 12/11/2007).

This quote alludes to the government’s commitment to centrist and non-extreme issues, as well as a controlled approach to publicize the campaign, namely through education and media attention. By noting the government’s interest in stemming domestic violence, this quote effectively links SERNAM’s domestic violence campaign with Bachelet’s political strategy. Therefore, SERNAM does not function in a manner that is autonomous from the state, but instead is influenced by the reigning political party through its leadership and roster of campaign issues.

Finally, the relative impact of SERNAM upon the women’s movement as a whole and how these developments represent the institutionalization of civil organizations into a state-sanctioned structure must be investigated. In addressing the general women’s movement within Chile, we will contextualize the discussion, a brief background will be given. While the development of the women’s movement in Chile began before Pinochet came to power, it became increasingly mobilized during his term in office over three major issues: subsistence, female representation within government, and transition to a democracy.

Due to the harsh economic conditions under Pinochet’s dictatorship, women began to consolidate their concerns into a coherent movement, setting up local organizations to provide food (i.e. soup kitchens) and participating in large-scale national protests against the end of democracy. However, the 1989 plebiscite and the end of the dictatorship spelled a gradual demobilization of the women’s movement’s confrontational period due to the fact that women had received their demands and could therefore return to their normal daily tasks (Fraceschet, 2003, 26). Yet, while the end of Pinochet’s term and the institutionalization of civilian rule was a significant cause for the demobilization of the women’s movement, scholars have argued that SERNAM has contributed to its own relative weakness by drawing activist leaders into the organization, where their more volatile issues could be defused, as well as through its control over the types of feminist issues that would be introduced in the policy arena.

The loss of authentic activist leaders has had a major impact on the women’s movement because it deprived this potentially powerful and highly mobilized group of a significant leadership that could propose its own policy agendas. Franceschet supports this notion, stating that, “SERNAM is also blamed for weakening the movement by drawing activists from civil society to the state, thereby depriving women’s organization of crucial leadership” (Franceschet, 2003, 27). As women’s organizations no longer had strong leaders to present a united front for the interests of the popular sector, the movement as a whole gradually dissipated. This quote provides a second point to the issue of demobilization, suggesting the idea that these leaders found themselves to be employees of the state, thus channeling the demands of the women’s movement through state-sanctioned institutions. Therefore, the women’s movement has entered a new phase of organization in which it presents its demands through government-established organizations such as SERNAM that, in turn, follows the regulations and limitations established by the state.

SERNAM also tends to weaken the women’s movement through its control of the types of issues that come before MIDEPLAN and other ministries within the Chilean government. As discussed previously, SERNAM has successfully steered issues in the policy arena away from the controversial issues presented by a more left-leaning women’s movement (such as divorce and abortion) to more low-key topics that do not provoke a rightist reaction. While this is an important argument against SERNAM’s ability to detract power away from the women’s movement, it also reflects the larger institutional framework that allocates significant political influence to that body.

Despite its institutional limits, SERNAM maintains a powerful influence and vital connections with other related offices in government, thus controlling an important political resource within the state. While Franceschet’s article initially argues that SERNAM serves to strengthen the women’s movement through the provision of monetary resources to NGOs and other women’s organizations, it becomes clear through her use of examples that these organizations (such as CIDEM and the Red de Mujeres de Organizaciones Sociales) operate through SERNAM rather than independently of this state organization. For example, Franceschet notes within her article, “Although under-resourced, SERNAM’s Civil Society Fund provides important resources to grassroots women’s organizations” (Franceschet, 2003, 28). This supports the idea that while SERNAM occupies a less than advantageous position in government, it still maintains control of important resources for grassroots organizations, for which they must compete and lobby.
This concept appears somewhat contradictory in that by limiting SERNAM’s status within government, the state may have inadvertently allocated more power to SERNAM by making it the key link between public NGO’s and the ministries. Yet, this contradiction is key to understanding what can be seen as the demobilization of the women’s movement. By consolidating the ability to call for new gender policies into a single organization, the state has deprived the general women’s movement of a powerful political tool, namely making connections and wielding influence with the government ministries. Thus, little space is left for the women’s movement to bring more important, if controversial, issues into the political arena. Not only does this limit their political influence, but it also forces them to channel their demands through SERNAM. Therefore, the state limitations placed upon SERNAM have served to demobilize and limit the power of the general women’s movement by pressuring organizations to operate within an institutionalized system.

Tallying up SERNAM’s Record

SERNAM’s established goals were to provide gender equality in the social, political, and economic spheres of the state. However, through examining the relatively skewed representation of women’s interests, the lack of autonomy from the state, and in effect, the demobilization of the general women’s movement, it has become clear that SERNAM faces severe questioning regarding the severity of its dedication to these goals. Not only are the Mapuche women bringing attention to the issue of redefining gender equality to include considerations of class and race, but SERNAM also faces larger representational challenges that link it to the institutional core of the Chilean governmental system.

Although SERNAM initially was provided a weak position in government through its lack of funding and legislative powers, it has gained enormous influence upon the discourse over women’s policies to be pursued by NGOs and government policies. However, this highlights the relatively meager quality of representation in that demands from smaller women’s organizations (remnants of mass popular mobilization during Pinochet’s regime) are all but excluded from the political arena. While this has contributed to the demobilization of the women’s movement, more importantly, it has redefined the ways in which civil organizations can be adequately represented within Chile’s civic structure and bureaucratic maze.

Rather than pressuring for policy issues through a process that is autonomous from the government, outside organizations within Chilean society must operate through a largely unanticipated institutionalized system to obtain the funding and influence necessary to pass laws. Therefore, the post-transition government has transformed the way that civil organizations obtain benefits and legislative change, pressuring them to operate through state-sanctioned organizations and thus decreasing the overall representative quality of Chilean governmental policy relating to women.

Baldez, Lisa. 2001. “Coalition Politics and the Limits of State Feminism in Chile.” Women & Politics 22(4): 1-28.
Espinoza, Pamela. “Lanzan Campaign: + No Violence Against Women.” SERNAM, November 12, 2007.

Franceschet, Susan. 2003. “’State Feminism’ and Women’s Movements: The Impact of Chile’s Servicio Nacional de la Mujer on Women’s Activism.” Latin American Research Review 38(1): 9-40.

Franceschet, Susan. 2005. “’State Feminism’ in Posttransition Chile,” and “Women’s Movements: Confronting New Challenges.” In Women and Politics in Chile. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.

Oxhorn, Philip. 1995. “Popular Organizations and the Emergence of a New Collective Identity: Lo Popular,” and “The Popular Sectors and the Return of Democracy.” In Organizing Civil Society: The Popular Sectors and the Struggle for Democracy in Chile. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press.
Richards, Patricia. 2006. “The Politics of Difference and Women’s Rights: Lessons from Pobladoras and Mapuche Women in Chile.” Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State and Society 13(1): 1-29.

Waylen, Georgina. 2000. “Gender and Democratic Politics: A Comparative Analysis of Consolidation in Argentina and Chile.” Journal of Latin American Studies 32(3): 765-793.