The path toward gender equality in Chile

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Blog: El camino hacia la igualdad de género en Chile Blog: El camino hacia la igualdad de género en Chile

Though they may have started in response to a rise in metro fare, the protests that erupted all over Chile last year were about much more.  The social unrest showed us that despite rapid economic growth in recent decades, the most vulnerable segments of society still face real economic challenges. 

This is especially the case of Chilean women, who have one of the lowest rates of employment in Latin America. Many of them took to the streets to demand equal treatment and call for the government to act on issues like income disparity, gender-based violence, and the persistence of traditional gender roles. In the process, they became the source of one of the world’s most powerful feminist anthems, inspiring hundreds of thousands to join their cause. 

It was in this context that we traveled to Santiago at the beginning of the year for data collection on behalf of our project. Women, Business and the Law is a World Bank Group flagship report measuring gender equality in legislation in 190 economies.  

When it comes to women’s legal rights and economic opportunities, Chile performs better than the global average (75.2) and has shown significant progress over time.  Its score increased by more than 50% between 1970 and 2020, from 33.8 to 77.5 out of a possible 100. 

Considering that at the global level the average economy saw a change in score of just 28.8, Chile’s 43.7-point increase demonstrates a notable commitment to gender equality. Despite this, Chile still scores the lowest among OECD high-income economies (which have an average score of 94.6) and among the lowest in Latin America (an average score of 79.2).

Legal challenges when addressing gender inequality

Meeting with local legal experts throughout the week, we heard stories of the ways in which the unequal treatment of women affects their economic opportunity. For instance, victims of sexual harassment at work told us that they would rather quit their jobs than report it. The procedure established by law to investigate and punish such conduct can often times lack transparency and result in humiliation for victims, proving that it is virtually ineffective. 

Another lawyer talked of the blatant wage discrimination she faced – her boss told her openly that she is paid less than a male colleague doing the same job. In his view, this compensated for the possibility of her having children one day and taking leave to care for them. One woman explained that her mother refused to get married out of fear that she would be discriminated against when trying to get a line of credit to open her business. Even if she was successful, she was afraid a husband would then control her property. 

Each of these stories has a clear legal parallel:

  • Though there is legislation prohibiting sexual harassment in employment in Chile, there are no criminal penalties for its perpetrators or civil remedies for its victims.
  • The law does not mandate equal remuneration for work of equal value, or prohibit discrimination based on gender in access to credit.
  • Finally, perhaps the most prominent challenge facing Chilean women is the persistence of the conjugal society. This default marital property regime automatically makes the husband the head of the household and administrator of marital property. This has a direct impact on women’s financial inclusion and can deter their access to credit. Such a system exists only in nine economies around the world: seven in Sub-Saharan Africa, one in East Asia and the Pacific and one in Latin America and the Caribbean, Chile.

Just a few days after our mission, which included a methodology workshop for those in charge of legal reforms in Chile, President Sebastián Piñera announced his intent to give legislative urgency to reforms that will improve Chile’s standing in the Women, Business and the Law index

Specifically, his administration will focus on removing a 270-day waiting period for women to remarry and reforming any discriminatory provisions related to the conjugal society. On July 28th, the Constitutional Commission of the Senate of Chile approved a draft law which amends the Civil Code by abrogating the waiting period for the remarriage of women.

The reforms announced are even more relevant now, as we consider the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on gender inequalities. As women comprise a majority of the informal economy in Latin America and the Caribbean, this pandemic makes them more vulnerable to unemployment and poverty.  Also, women occupy most of the jobs deemed essential during this time, which increases their likelihood of getting the disease.

Reforms ensuring women’s economic inclusion are more important than ever. Women, Business and the Law will continue to highlight reform initiatives such as the one taking place in Chile, and the effects of gender inequality.  It is only when women can fully and equally participate in economic life that we can achieve sustainable economic growth, even in difficult circumstances.


Isabel Santagostino Recavarren

Private Sector Development Specialist

Nisha Arekapudi

Private Sector Specialist; Women, Business and the Law

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