The Riots of Chile’s New Generations: From the Struggle for Free Education to the Feminist Student Movement

Chilean students protest for reforms in the country’s university system. The sign reads: “Education is not a Business.” Photo credit:

Women from Chile are occupying education institutions in Chile and they won’t be going anywhere soon. Universidad de Santiago (USACH), Universidad de Concepción (UdeC), the Academia de Humanismo Cristiano (Academy of Christina Humanism) and the Universidad Metropolitana de Ciencias de la Educación (UMCE), are just some of the institutions still under occupation by women today, by feminists who are demanding an end to paid education, sexual harassment, patriarchal practices, and the influence of capital in our universities. It’s not only a student movement though, and these women aren’t only seeking to change the internal policies of their universities. Indeed, they are even speaking up for the rights of women that work as cleaners, secretaries, or subcontractors.

Like many of these women that I am proud to call my comrades, my journey to feminism also came through the movement for free education. As the pioneers of that struggle, we learned from within that access to education was necessary but not nearly enough. Patriarchy within and outside of the movement taught us that we want to emancipate ourselves both from inequality and patriarchy.

Chile’s education legacy cannot be understood without the mention of Pinochet’s dictatorship. With the election of Salvador Allende in 1970, we were the first nation in the world to democratically elect a Marxist into power through free elections. The United States government opposed Allende’s government, and therefore manufactured a coup enabling General Augusto Pinochet to take power in 1973. Chile’s fate was to become the first laboratory for a particular form of capitalism, neoliberalism, which would take what was up until then the responsibility of the state and privatize it, putting it into the hands of businesses. At the heart of Chile’s neoliberal reform was education. Before Pinochet, education was free. Under Pinochet, universities were privatized and schools started working with a voucher-type subsidy system.

We – people of my generation – were born just towards the end of Pinochet’s reign. Wealthy people could attend the best schools and universities of the country while the poor had to go to incomparably worse public schools. Pinochet was gone but his legacy still lived on. When we reached high school, those of us who were less fortunate rose up demanding quality and free education. I was a 14-year-old girl when, in 2006, my fellow students and I took to the streets, occupied the school buildings, and went on strike. High school students from across the country, whether they came from mixed schools or gender segregated ones, rose up to demand the right to education. Women were at the forefront of this movement. By 2011, most of our generation was getting ready to graduate high school. We took our movement to different colleges and universities, we radicalized student governments. Some forged leftist political parties and others became anarchists. We seemed like a common bloc, but there were problems under the surface.

Student politics was often masculinist, even though women did most of the work. Most of the important positions went to men. Sidelined within the movement and harassed from outside, many of the women in the free education movement began to understand the importance of the struggle for women. We started saying no to sexual harassment, and challenged education reform which failed to acknowledge the role of higher education in naturalizing patriarchal oppression. We went beyond free education, and demanded nonsexist education and anti-harassment policies.

New organizations were forged, and women began organizing autonomously. The women in the education struggle linked up with women fighting violence against women, led by Coordinadora NiUnaMenos (Not One Fewer Women) and Coordinadora Feministas en Lucha (Feminists in the Struggle). Female students and workers around the country became more conscious about the several cases of harassment and chauvinism inside each educational institution. More female and feminist students decided not to push themselves into the background anymore and start participating actively in the student movement. They wanted to imbue each national and local assembly with anti-patriarchal values and practices.

In September of 2017, the VOGESEX (Committee of Gender and Sexuality of the University of Concepción) organized the first National Conference for Nonsexist Education, which gathered many women, feminist organizations, and collectives. Many agreements and reflections that came out of this congress are now at the base of the current feminist student movement. The main point is the understanding of education as a tool that reproduces a social, cultural, and ideological order. The VOGESEX conference affirmed that “it is through education that capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism are reproduced, and these systems are the pillars of a sexist and market-based education, which is recognized in the formal and nonformal education.”

The movement came at a time of unprecedented reports of violence against women in the private and public sphere. Like elsewhere, in Chile male professors who are accused of harassment and misogyny often were protected. Young women said no to this, and even began to name and shame these scholars such as Carlos Carmona, Leonardo León (both from Universidad de Chile), Óscar Galindo (Universidad Austral), José Andrés Gaggero (Universidad Católica), among others.

This is how the feminist student movement rose up and started to make noise about the injustices against women inside and outside of the institutions. Nowhere has been left untouched. Indeed, women have even lead occupations and strikes at highly prestigious schools. Just this April and leading up through May, female students occupied Instituto Nacional – one of the most important boys’ schools – to call for an end to misogyny and sexist practices. The demands of the movement have become broader, and female students now are asking for feminist and gender courses, the recognition of transgender people, and modification of the internal regulations, just to name a few.

In this sense, the feminist movement and the students’ revolution are two sides of the same coin, they represent our discomfort with neoliberal education and patriarchy from different angles. As Gema Ortega, the spokeswoman of the Coordinadora Feministas en Lucha put it to Toward Freedom, “In Chile, education has turned the focus from transmitting content to providing skills, and the highest ones are creation and criticism. And to achieve this, we need nonsexist education because it is something that crosses four dimensions: moral, legal, biological, and a feminist one. By having nonsexist education, students would be able to think freely without judgments or discrimination of any kind.”

Young women are also responding to current political circumstances. Last year, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera and his rightwing counterparts were elected into government. Piñera was once a supporter of Pinochet, and he represented everything the feminist student struggle stands against: violence and sexist education. Amid the ongoing strikes and occupations, the president announced the new ‘Agenda de género’ (Gender Agenda) that will take place throughout his presidency. He neither addressed the question of sexism in education nor the fight to legalize abortion, another central demand for Chilean feminists and progressives. As Paz Gajardo, the spokeswoman of  the Confederation of Students of Chile, told El Mostrador, “From many points that President Piñera speaks about on his agenda, he doesn’t mention nonsexist education, abortion in three cases [a law that was passed under former president Bachelet’s government and allows abortion only in three cases], neither does he mentions the violence that women experience in this country.”

Some of the recent wave of feminist student occupations have since halted. There are number of reasons as to why. In some cases, it has been due to administrative intervention, and at other times due to the pressure of students unsupportive of the mobilizations. This was the case of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (Pontifical Catholic University of Chile), where 32 years had passed since last time it was occupied, and now it has been the feminist student movement leading it. Women inside this university were asking for the modification of harassment policies that included the suspension of those professors involved, the use of a nonsexist and gender-neutral language and an increased awareness about abortion.

This occupation was dissolved after the president of the University agreed with some points that the students were asking for, such as the creation of gender neutral bathrooms, the recognition of transgender social names, and workshops that include professors, students, and employees. However, before the occupation was resolved, there was a division between the women who wanted end the strike and settle with the victories they had won, and those who wanted to continue the strike in order to win more important changes they had been demanding from the beginning, such as, mandatory courses on women’s studies and the identification and punishment of any kind of harassment including online sexual harassment.

The feminist student movement in Chile is a struggle that has intersected through different movements in the country, not only within the realm of educational. This third wave of feminism has given attention to abortion and fought for its legality. It has also given support to women who have been harassed or abused, and has addressed and asked for indigenous rights and recognition. In some cases, feminists have even questioned natural resource extraction and Chilean society’s relationship with land and nature.

Considering such roots of this movement, it is hard to believe that the struggle will stop here with the occupation of these educational institutions; Female students and workers know that it doesn’t stop there. We are organizing against a neoliberal and patriarchal order that has been managing Chileans’ future while strengthening the social and class division once promoted by Pinochet. For this reason, even when Chileans are facing a strong group of powerful elites that stick to the old systems of colonialism and domination, there have always been a new generation that comes to turn these ideas upside down and ask for a freer society.

Pilar Villanueva is a feminist activist and the editor-in-chief in Zanganos Magazine.