Eradicating Sexual Harassment from the University of Chile, and from Chile


By Carmen Andrade, Director of the Equality and Gender Opportunities Office Vicerrectoría de Extensión y Comunicaciones, Universidad de Chile

 / Translated by Patricio Novoa

Sexual harassment is one of the various manifestations of gender violence existing in the country and, although both perpetrator and victim can be of the same sex, it is widely understood that it affects women disproportionately. It is an attack that operates as a control mechanism, causing fear; as it proves offensive, hostile, and threatening, it undermines the dignity and the integrity of the person.

As the lawyer Patsilí Toledo points out, its causes are rooted in the general context of gender discrimination, which results in women being excluded from public life, since they are considered a threat, and relegated to the domestic sphere. Thus, their exercise of the fundamental rights to education, work, or freedom of movement is limited. This has been acknowledged in international protocols subscribed by Chile, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, where discrimination is defined as “every distinction, exclusion, or restriction based on sex whose objective or result is to impair or override the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women  (…) of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women identifies sexual harassment as a form of violence that takes place in the workplace, educational institutions, health institutions, and other places. The International Labour Organization, in turn, recognizes it as a health, security, and gender discrimination problem.

Insecurity and fear of public spaces is an integral part of the socialization processes that women live through: “take care of yourself”, “don’t go out alone at night”, “try not to dress like that”, are messages that colour their perceptions and behaviours. It is paradoxical, though, that it should be the victims who abandon the spaces where they feel they are unprotected.  28% of female employees in Chile who reported harassment had to leave their jobs, according to a 2009 SERNAM (National Women’s Service) report.

These practices are hardly ever reported and so offenders go unsanctioned and victims are never compensated. This is confirmed by SERNAM and Labour Office surveys: more than 60% of the people surveyed, mostly women, think that sexual harassment in the work place takes place often, and 12% declare having been affected. The low number of reports comes from lack of information, difficulty in verifying the complaints, the social and job-related costs that come with reporting such cases, and also from distrust in the investigation process, which rarely guarantees the protection of rights. Thus, silence and impunity create the perfect context for these practices to continue.

Harassment in Universities

In the education world, harassment corresponds to a kind of sexual behaviour that offends the person it is addressed to, infringing on their right to a quality education, and which creates a hostile, offensive, and intimidating environment. It takes different forms: promises of preferential and beneficial treatment in exchange for sexual favours, threats in order to exact unwanted behaviour, use of sexually explicit language, sexual innuendos or proposals, obscene gestures, hostile and humiliating body contact, rubbing, touching, offensive or hostile treatment (sexist or degrading comments, the spreading of rumours about the sex life of others, among other things).

International research “reveals that this is a phenomenon that takes place in university environments, and there are already numerous initiatives and experiences in many universities throughout the world that are implemented to prevent and avoid situations of gender violence”, as pointed out by Rosa Valls and other Catalonian experts in their report of 2007. In studies conducted in American and European universities, 27% of female students state that they have experienced some kind of sexual abuse and 58% have experienced or known about some situation of gender violence in the university, according to Alan M. Gross and his team in their 2006 study.

In university culture, abusive practices have become so normalized that even those who are affected or witness them do not recognize them as sexual transgressions, even in situations where they were forced to have intercourse. This results in a low number of reports, as does the victims’ assumption of a degree of responsibility in bringing about the situation, reinforced by cultural beliefs that consider them responsible and the feeling that the institution will not take them seriously or support them.

In order to assess this problem, the University of Chile conducted the first study in the university context. The results show that 26% of those surveyed state that they have first hand knowledge of incidents of harassment or sexual aggression that have taken place on the university campus, on field trips, or at university parties, and 14,7% declare that they have personally experienced an incident directly in the course of their university career; mostly, these cases have not been reported. The proportion of women affected (21%) doubles that of men (9%), and female students are the most affected, percentage-wise and in terms of the seriousness of the aggressions. The power asymmetry between students and teachers makes the abuse even worse.

Violence and sexual harassment radically contradict the principles and values of this institution, and the university has decided to make the issue visible, to openly debate their causes and consequences and, above all, to eradicate it from university campuses.

The Gender Equality Office of the Vicerrectoría de Extensión y Comunicaciones has distributed manuals that provide guidance on how to act when faced with harassment; it has also elaborated documents and organized seminars in order to bring up the subject for debate, it is conducting general courses for undergraduate students on gender violence and has participated in colloquiums and conferences in different faculties, such as Sciences and Medicine. The Students’ Union, in turn, has taken on the fight against harassment as one of their banners of struggle, and the Gender and Sexualities Secretariats have played an active role in this process. All these instances, together with the Vicerrectoría de Asuntos Estudiantiles y Comunitarios (VAEC) and the Justice Office have made up a Special Commission, coordinated by the VAEC, which has focused on the modification of university regulations in order to typify harassment, elaborate protocols and special training courses for fiscals and secretaries that participate in the investigations and set up agreements to provide victims with psychological care. In this way, the university has decided to make it clear that sexual harassment will not be tolerated inside or outside the classroom.

But this effort has not yet transcended the whole of this university. Facing up to a problem of this magnitude, one that has deep cultural roots, calls for a permanent university policy that establishes a clear path for action built around prevention, and which includes education, the protection of victims, effective investigation and punishment for offenders.  One of its central lines should be the inclusion of questions of gender equality and violence as cross-sectional contents in the university curriculum. Helping thousands of youngsters to acquire knowledge and develop their critical thinking with respect to inequalities between men and women would no doubt be a great contribution for the country.

At the national level, a normative framework is required, one that is coherent with international conventions and much more comprehensive than the current one; in fact, even if sexual harassment is a widespread issue, the legal normative that regulates it is almost exclusively restricted to the labour environment (law 20005 of 2005). Likewise, the law that classifies and sanctions violence against women is restricted to the family area and/or couples relationships, although it clearly transcends these spaces. Therefore, an integral law is urgent, one that includes, among other matters, violence and sexual harassment in the educational context. New legislation would constitute some important support for the actions carried out by Chilean universities.

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