On Women's Rights, Chile Is Full Of Contradictions

Chile is often heralded as the most developed country in Latin America. But the country lags far behind the region when it comes to women's rights and equality. Annie Murphy reports from Santiago.

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Now to a story that comes to us from Chile, which has such a thriving economy that it's often heralded as the most developed country in Latin America. But Chile lags, when it comes to equality and women's rights. Women couldn't vote for president until 1952; and less than half of the women who can work, do. They also earn a quarter less than men. While the country's made progress with its first female president, Michelle Bachelet, most Chilean women lag behind the rest of Latin America. Annie Murphy has more, from Santiago.

ANNIE MURPHY, BYLINE: Laura Albornoz is running between meetings. Albornoz was Chile's minister of women's affairs, under Michelle Bachelet. And today, she's a lawyer, a university professor, and the VP of a major political party. She's also a wife and mothe;, and still cooks, tidies up the house and goes to the grocery store. Albornoz is busy, in a way that she says most men just don't get.

LAURA ALBORNOZ: (Through translator) When I was minister, whenever the male ministers told me that they had a lot of responsibilities, too, I'd ask them, what's your family going to eat at home today? And they couldn't answer because they'd never been on their way out the door, in the morning, and stopped to take a chicken out of the freezer, to thaw for dinner.

MURPHY: She believes Chilean women face two types of pressure because most continue taking care of homes, and families, while trying to overcome some of the worst inequality in the hemisphere. Even Albornoz feels Chile's wage gap. She told me that her closest male friend from college, who often used her notes to study by, makes 10 times her salary even though Albornoz was a government minister, which would normally be a huge bargaining chip.

Women have made some strides in the past few years. Participation in the workforce is up by almost 10 percent. But Chilean women are still behind the rest of Latin America, and they're not breaking into the major industries that drive Chile's economy. Andrea Betancourt, of the think tank ComunidadMujer.

ANDREA BETANCOURT: Engineer, mining, finance, electricity, construction - so the big industries, the most profitable industry, are masculine. And the things related with service, with taking care of people, are feminine. And the thing is that they are worse pay.

MURPHY: Ruth Olate has worked as a maid since she was 12. She now heads up the national maids union. She says the pay gap between men and women holds true in low-paid, informal jobs, too.

RUTH OLATE: (Foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: Olate says male gardeners, who can earn around $150 a day, make - in one day - about the same as a maid makes in two weeks. Olate also points out that there are laws on the books that should improve wages and working conditions. But she says they're rarely enforced. Some laws have helped women become more independent - like divorce. Yet it only became legal to divorce in Chile, in 2004. And there are also laws that hold women back - like a law that says that any business with more than 20 female employees must pay for day care until children turn 2. Conservative legal historian and professor Gonzalo Rojas admits that the law often causes big businesses to simply limit female hires.

GONZALO ROJAS: People are very, very aware that when they do their - the calculations for their enterprise, they look - how many women in fertile age, do we have?

MURPHY: Rojas believes that more than men, women need and want the security of marriage and children; and that by pursuing the same career paths as men, they're actually hurting their prospects for the future. This is what he says of his brightest female law students.

ROJAS: You can imagine that she's going to be hired by a wonderful legal staff, and she's going to travel a lot. Maybe she's not going to marry, herself, until the late 30s. Oh, what a horrible life she has ahead.

MURPHY: Because?

ROJAS: Because she's going to be on her own. I mean, the problem is, is she's going to be on her own.

MURPHY: Contradictions are everywhere. When I asked Rojas about the most important historical event, for Chilean women, in the past 50 years or so, he said it was when poet Gabriela Mistral won the Nobel Prize. Yet Mistral was a woman that never married, and never had children. She actually left Chile because it was easier to have a career abroad; and she spent most of her life on her own.

For NPR News, I'm Annie Murphy in Santiago.

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