The date September 11th resonates in American hearts, but it resonates in Chilean hearts too. On September 11th, 1973––following an extended period of unrest and political tension––Augusto Pinochet seized power; showering La Moneda Palace, and the democratic government inside it, with bombs and bullets.
In 1970 Salvador Allende received 36.6% of the Chilean vote, making him the first Marxist to ever be elected to the national presidency of a liberal democracy. Allende’s socialist policies, the declining economy, and the constitutional crisis combined to polarize the country. During this time, in 1973, Allende named Pinochet the commander-in-chief of the Army after a long military career. A month later, a military junta was established immediately following the coup. This allowed Pinochet to consolidate his power and name himself “Supreme Chief of the Nation” in 1974; later changing his title to “President.”
In the days and months following the coup, thousands were arrested and tortured. This took place in the 1,000+ places that served as detention centers throughout the country; all supposed “internal enemies” of the state. Expanding on the 1991 Rettig Report in 2004, Chile’s National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Tortue––widely known as The Valech Report––collected the testimonies of 27,255 people regarded as “direct victims” of the dictatorship, 94% of which were tortured. Shockingly, 31% of those tortured did not hold political views; shedding light on the false rhetoric of “internal enemies” that Pinochet and the military used to justify their actions.
Women and Conflict: Reflections
Where are all the women?
This question has swirled in my mind since expanding my knowledge of the Chilean dictatorship. Whenever the dictatorship is talked about the conversation is male-centric. I have found this to be true in my classes, my home, or amongst Chileans. The extent of women’s experiences are summed up in statistics: of those tortured, the Valech report concluded that 13% of them were women––3,399––the majority of which experienced sexual violence. Besides this, neither the Rettig or Valech report contains a section specifically about gender-based violence. Rather, the torture experienced by Chilean women is jumbled under the broad umbrella of “human rights violations in Chile”. This makes the assumption that men and women experience conflict in the same ways.
In reality, men and women do not experience conflict in the same ways. Torture against women often systematically targets their femininity and sexuality, something that the Rettig and Valech reports do not mention. By sprinkling antidotes about sexual torture in the reports, and not creating a separate chapter about gender-based violence, the reports attempt to mainstream, inside of sideline, gender. This mainstreaming equates the torture experienced by women to that experienced by men. This, in turn, then affects how society views women in conflict; how gender is treated in future reconciliation committees; and the extent of the reparations survivors receive, often making such reparations gender-blind.
While the majority of women experienced sexual violence while detained, there is also a danger in seeing women as only victims of sexual violence. Gender-based violence includes a range of violations. The focus on sexual violence can lead to a deprioritization of other important aspects of women’s human rights violations, reaffirming the bias that women are sexual beings alone.
Additionally, women are dynamic, but they are often only thought of as victims––if they are thought of at all. However, women actively participated in the regime. As recently as February of this year, Australian police arrested Adriana Rivas, the secretary of Manuel Contreras, the Chief of Chile’s secret police force. Witnesses allege that Rivas acted as one of the most brutal torturers, playing a role in the Lautaro Brigade charged with killing the leadership of the underground Communist Party. On the other hand, women’s roles in the resistance are often overlooked. The women of Paine, a rural community 20 miles outside of Santiago, are responsible for the building of the town memorial. Hortensia Allende, the widow of Salvador Allende, is renown for her advocacy for the respect of human rights and freedom of expression while in exile.
From an outsider perspective, Chile has yet to confront its past. There is a cloak of silence surrounding sexual violence and torture. I am currently taking a class at Pontificia Universidad de Chile in Santiago called “Human Rights and Transitional Justice”. This class focuses on Chile’s dictatorship and transition to democracy. Within the first few weeks of classes, my professor cautioned us about who we speak to about the dictatorship. My professor warned that many still support Pinochet and his policies; seeing him as a sort of grandfather to the nation. To say this shocked me is an understatement, but it would not come close to the sad reality I would discover: Chilean women and the dynamic roles they played during and under the dictatorship are barely recognized.
Chilean filmmaker Lissette Orozco, the niece of Adriana Rivas, documented this silence in her movie, “Adriana’s Pact.” Orozco says that “more than 40 years have passed since the dictatorship, but there’s no justice in Chile. There still exists the idea of denying what happened during those years”. Orozco documents her own path to the truth; she begins to show her aunt’s side of the story about her role in the dictatorship. As the film progresses Orozco increasingly confronts her aunt as the truth unravels, later struggling to reconcile the woman she knew as a child with the image of an infamous torturer.
In my opinion, Chile’s failure to confront the systematic sexual violence and the dynamic roles that women played in and under the dictatorship is reflective of the wider dialogue surrounding gender. Gender is seen as secondary, not primary. Women are still very much meant to work within the home, cooking and cleaning for their families. Men often stare or touch women without consent. My classes are dominated by male voices and male professors, even when there are more women than men in the class.
Chile has not confronted its past because it cannot confront its future: women leading, engineering, and paving the way.
Cira Mancuso is an International Politics major at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and studied abroad with IFSA at Pontificia Universidad Católica in Chile in the fall. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study Program.