Chile’s new constitution could be the first to embody egalitarian and ecological principles.
Three days after International Women’s Day, a new government took office in which women are in the majority and in charge of key ministries—of the interior, foreign affairs and justice. The country is Chile, where I grew up and where the winds of change are blowing, largely thanks to the feminist movement.
Chile has been notable for its conservatism and extreme neoliberalism. The long feminist resistance to these has had as its milestones the election of Chile’s first woman president, Michelle Bachelet, in 2006, and the organisation of movements for social rights, such as to education and sexual and reproductive health, in which young women have played key roles.
Now Chile can really take a step forward, and set an example, in the drafting of its new constitution.
In response to the big social mobilisations which emerged in October 2019 to protest against inequalities and demand a dignified life for all, political leaders agreed to organise a referendum to initiate the creation of a fresh constitution. The aim was to dispense with the text adopted during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-90), which imposed an economic and social model mainly benefiting an elite.
Since then, it has been a whirlwind: a constitutional convention with gender parity was elected in May 2021, reflecting the country’s diversity and showing a profound change in the profiles of the country’s decision-makers. Although its work has not been without criticism, it has given rise to massive civil-society participation and, in the provisions discussed so far, seems on target to deliver the world’s first green and feminist constitution.
What is a feminist constitution? Is it enough to include the principles of gender parity, enshrine sexual and reproductive rights and include the right to a life free of violence? All the above are necessary, but not sufficient. The new constitution must lay the groundwork for addressing gender inequality in a comprehensive manner, including ensuring adequate funding for public services, infrastructure and social protection which take into account women’s particular needs. It also requires making the richest and multinationals contribute fairly, through taxation.
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The pandemic has made clear that much of the work involved in maintaining the health and wellbeing of children, the elderly and other family members is done by women on an unpaid basis. Women spend on average 3.2 times more time than men on unpaid care work, 4 hours and 25 minutes per day compared with 1 hour and 23 minutes for men. If these unpaid contributions by women were ascribed a monetary value, it would amount to a staggering $11 trillion a year or 9 per cent of global gross domestic product.
The health crisis has only exacerbated gender inequalities. In the last two years, job losses have hit women particularly hard, often pushing them out of the labour market. Those working in the informal sector, from domestic workers to agricultural labourers, have been first to be affected. In Latin America, the number of people living below the extreme poverty line increased between 2020 and 2021 from 81 million to 86 million, the majority of them women.
And it is not just the economic fallout. In the region, at least 4,091 women were victims of femicide in 2020. Meanwhile early marriage and civil unions already affect one in four adolescents under the age of 18.
After two years of a pandemic which has yet to come to an end, there can be no question of returning to a ‘normality’ that produced so much inequality and poverty. It is now urgent to build more inclusive and greener economies, economies that support women and prioritise investment in care.
These efforts come at a cost. States, which have spent so much in response to the pandemic, must not only recover their resources but increase them to finance this turnaround. A key avenue is fair taxation of wealth and capital income and an attack on tax avoidance by multinationals and the very richest, who have never been richer.
The combined wealth of all billionaires, estimated at $5 trillion on the eve of the pandemic, is now at an all-time high of $13.8 trillion. And it is crucial to end the race to the bottom in nominal corporate tax rates, which fell from an average of 40 per cent in the 1980s to 23 per cent in 2018.
Tax systems around the world need to be rendered more progressive, which means heavier reliance on direct taxes with greater capacity to reduce inequalities, with rates dependent on income or wealth. In essence, richer citizens and companies should contribute more because they have greater capacity.
Here too, Chile can show the way. The Red Ciudadana de Justicia Fiscal para Chile, a mobilised section of civil society, is calling for the new constitution to take up progressive taxation and be a transformative force for redistributing wealth. In this way, it would break with the culture of privilege, guarantee transparency and address the need for solidarity in international taxation.
Of course, adopting a new constitution is not enough. Its principles must be translated into laws and public policies, supported by the government and Congress. But a constitutional text defines the foundations of society. In Chile, as elsewhere, inequalities and social tensions have become unbearable and are exacerbated too by the climate emergency.
There is an urgent need to change the development model to move towards a caring and inclusive society, which places gender equality at the centre and recognises the interdependence between people and their environment. The post-pandemic recovery will be green and feminist, or it will not be.
Magdalena Sepúlveda is executive director of the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and a member of the Independent Commission on International Corporate Tax Reform. From 2008 to 2014 she was United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.