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Protesters march in June 2018 in Santiago, demanding an end to sexual harassment and abuse, including in educational institutions.

AP Photo/Luis Hidalgo

Bill to fight sexual harassment in universities approved by Chilean Senate

SANTIAGO—On 20 August, Chile’s Senate approved a bill requiring state-supported institutions of higher education to create detailed protocols to respond to sexual harassment. Under the law, universities would have to adopt a concrete definition of harassment and establish consistent punishments for harassers, or risk losing state accreditation and funding. The bill will now move to the Chamber of Deputies, the second half of Chile’s legislature, where the bill’s creators hope it will become law as early as next year.

The bill was originally a brainchild of the Chilean Network of Women Researchers (RedI), an advocacy group that promotes gender equality in science and research in Chile.

A 2017 study conducted by Chile’s National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research found that at least 39% of students and 41% of academics reported encountering unsolicited attention of a sexual nature.

The country’s laws protect employees of universities and other research institutes against sexual harassment, but students, postdoctoral scholars, and some others are left to fall through the cracks, says RedI President Adriana Bastías, a biochemist at Chile’s Autonomous University in Providencia. They cannot take their cases to labor courts and few institutions have strong procedures for dealing with sexual harassment internally.

As of November 2017, only about 12% of Chile’s state-accredited universities had protocols to deal with sexual harassment toward students and postdocs, according to a study conducted by the Center for Research on Education Policies and Practices, based here.

Since then, many more universities have begun to take steps to address sexual harassment on campus, but their plans have been “inconsistent and have proven ineffective in deterring such behavior,” says Leonardo Castillo Cárdenas, the new bill’s primary author.

Inspired in part by the National Science Foundation’s decision to make financial awards contingent on antiharassment policies, Castillo Cárdenas, a lawyer and legal sciences researcher at Chile’s La Frontera University in Temuco, wanted to create a bill with teeth. “You can’t do much without money,” he says. “So if we attack that specifically, we’re going to attain the cultural changes that we need.”

The new proposal lays out specific steps needed for higher education institutions to keep their accreditation and state funding, including shielding victims’ identities, helping them avoid direct contact with harassers, and providing appropriate legal and psychological resources. The proposed law was written with universities and research institutions in mind but would extend to other forms of state-supported higher education, including professional institutes and training programs for Chile’s police force.

Proponents of the bill have been encouraged by other recent steps to crack down on sexual harassment in Chile, including a law criminalizing street harassment, which passed earlier this year. They are hopeful that the proposal will be well received in the Chamber of Deputies.

“I’m very confident that it’s going to succeed,” says Chilean Senator Ximena Órdenes, one of five sponsors who first introduced the bill in May 2018. “It’s necessary for the future of society we want to create.”