For the second part of my year abroad, I am working as an intern with Amnesty International Chile. Having never worked with such an organization before, I really did not know what to expect, but it’s been a fantastic experience. I am the human rights intern, so I’m working with the Education in Human Rights team, and with two projects called the Education, Empowerment and Justice Project, and An Operation Day’s Work. Both projects seek to educate young people and adults on Sexual and Reproductive human rights. Working for Amnesty has given me an insight into a very different side of Chile and some of the problems it still faces.
Traditional Catholic values still prevail. Chile is one of the 6 countries in the world where abortion is illegal in all cases. This law disproportionately affects the less privileged, as those that can afford it can pay to have a safe abortion in secret, or go elsewhere where it’s legal. Amnesty Chile is campaigning for abortion to be legalized in three key circumstances of pregnancy: when pregnancy poses a danger to the life of a woman, when pregnancy is induced by rape or when the fetus will not survive outside the womb, as a result of a genetic or structural congenital abnormality. The Senate has just voted in favor of decriminalizing abortion in these three circumstances, which is the first progressive step. Access to legalized abortion would guarantee a woman the right to determine the number of children she has, when she has them and the time period between children (part of our sexual and reproductive rights), which are a branch of our right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, one of the 30 Universal Human Rights. After getting into a debate with an older man on the issue whilst taking part in a collection for Amnesty, it became clear how passionate some people are about the issue. He even returned to find me with the head of his church, who invited me to come and reconsider my personal opinion!
Among those who lived under Pinochet, the legacy of human rights abuse that took place still resonates. The chances are that most people know someone who was subjected to torture or other forms of human rights abuse under the Dictator. . The current Constitution was implemented under Pinochet, thus many legacies of that period still remain. Amnesty launched a new campaign recently to try and persuade the government to change the current Immigration Law; this was established under Pinochet in the context of immigration being considered a ‘threat’ to society; still today the human rights of newly arrived immigrants are not guaranteed.
During the same street collection, I was repeatedly questioned about the ‘point’ of Amnesty International as there ‘are no human rights in Chile’. It’s an issue that still divides opinion .But whilst opinions remain split, and so far removed from my experience growing up in the UK we have to remember that Chile only became a democracy again in 1990; that’s really very recent, and wounds take time to heal.
As part of my job, I have been travelling to other parts of the country to carry out ‘gender’ workshops. We look at what gender is, separating it from sexuality, biological gender and sexual expression, in order to encourage the acceptance of different ways of expressing these four concepts, including homosexuality and transsexualism. We also look at how to overcome barriers presented by gender stereotypes, and how to tackle violations of sexual and reproductive rights. These violations limit the social and economic participation of women, indigenous people, immigrants and those that identify with any variation of gender or sexuality that does not fit with the ‘traditional concept of men and women’.
Education on these issues is key, and this is one of Amnesty’s aims. If people have never been taught acceptance, encouraged to stand up to what they believe in or question the status quo, then that status quo will remain. Through workshops in Santiago, and around the country, the teams I’m working with seek to educate groups of both young people and adults so that they can then go on to inform and teach others, and raise issues that for many are still very much taboo. In many traditional areas, machismo is prevalent, being gay or transsexual is not spoken about in the home, and a woman’s contribution to the family is often undervalued. Behavior outside the gender stereotype is frowned upon; a man should be a strong, masculine figure whilst a woman is feminine, a lady and does not play football! Alarmingly, in one activity we carried out in a recent workshop, when asked if a girl wearing a mini-skirt is partly at fault if she is sexually harassed, almost all of the students said ‘very much in agreement’.
Through working with the young people’s group, it has become clear to me that gender stereotypes are institutionalized through the education system. Not complying with traditional stereotypes can have extreme repercussions. For example, one male student was suspended for three weeks for dying his hair, girls have been told off for having their hair too short, and boys have been sent out of class for having trousers too tight. The education system should be the heart of teaching tolerance and acceptance and encouraging young people to be who they are – that is where Amnesty sees its role.
Changing the attitudes of people is not easy but as people start to question what they’ve always been told, there is evidence of change. A recent survey revealed that now, 74% of the population believe abortion should be legalized in the 3 key circumstances I referred to earlier (Plaza Pública Cadem: Estudio N° 107) Chile has developed rapidly in recent years, and I really do get the impression that opinions are opening up and society is becoming more liberal. In a very Catholic country, the fact that in January of this year, a public debate regarding gay marriage was launched, can only be a positive sign.
I’ve covered just some of the areas in which I’ve been working so far. Working with Amnesty is so much fun, and I’ve learnt a huge amount. Being completely honest, the majority of the issues I’ve talked about in this blog entry are ones that I haven’t really thought about too much before now. That’s probably because they aren’t really issues that affect me personally, and because in the UK, we generally take our human rights for granted. There are no doubt issues that concern some but we do live in a country where on the whole, fundamental human rights are upheld. I’ve fallen in love with Chile but working with Amnesty has given me an insight into its difficulties and into a very different area of work. It’s also made me realize how very different it is for some people here compared to the UK.