SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — After a long day of work, Sofia Brito fell asleep on a chair in an office at Chile’s Constitutional Court. She says she awoke abruptly to find her mentor, the court’s president, atop her and caressing her hair.
After agonizing conversations with friends, the 24-year-old law student overcame her fear and filed a sexual harassment complaint with officials at the University of Chile against her professor, Carlos Carmona, one of the country’s most prominent legal scholars.
Nearly eight months later, a ruling came down: The university suspended Carmona — who has not spoken publicly about the case — for three months on grounds of “lack of integrity,” saying that its sexual harassment rules only covered relationships among employees, not teachers and students.
The result outraged Brito’s fellow students and soon women across the country, awakening a Chilean version of the “Me Too” movement in the U.S. and elsewhere. Within hours after learning of the ruling on April 27, protesting female students occupied the university’s law school and within days, other women took over buildings at universities across the country to demand stricter rules and stronger punishment for sexual harassment.
At least one takeover promoted by sexual harassment, at the Austral University in southern Chile, began before the Brito case, though it had attracted less attention. Students there ended an eight-week occupation this month after administrators created an anti-discrimination organization.
Three full universities and 27 school departments have been paralyzed by the demonstrators, and some remain closed.
The movement quickly expanded as well into demands for greater education about women’s rights throughout the school system and for greater representation of women in administration.
Now many are calling for conservative President Sebastian Pinera to remove two of his Cabinet officials. Education Minister Gerardo Varela is accused of minimizing the protesters’ complaints while Health Minister Emilio Santelices angered activists by convincing the court to weaken a new law that legalized abortion in some cases. His motion convinced the tribunal to allow clinics the right to deny abortions on moral grounds.
Overall, the movement “is a new boost for the women’s movement in Chile,” said Carmen Andrade, a gender rights expert at the University of Chile. “Unlike what has occurred in other eras, now it clearly defines itself as feminist.”
Pinera recently ordered officials to speed up a study on reforming or creating protocols for handling sexual harassment cases at universities. Of 60 universities in the country, only seven until now have had procedures in place to deal with such complaints — and those include the University of Chile, whose rules the protesters say are incomplete.
“We came to realize that we all had the same problems,” said Amanda Mitrovic, spokeswoman for the University Feminist Coordinating Committee, one of the groups leading the protests. “Now we are asking for solutions on a national level. … We have to restructure and re-think education as a whole in Chile.”
The actions have led other parts of society to reconsider how they treat sexual harassment. The legal system this month adopted new protocol to prevent harassment, file complaints and guarantee hearings.
The protests come against the background of a longer, wider campaign for women’s rights in Chile and Latin America as a whole. Brito said in her complaint that one reason she fell asleep at the court was due to working long hours helping Carmona with a landmark court ruling that upheld the recent law that relaxed Chile’s previous absolute ban on abortion.
Brito said many students still don’t denounce harassment “because they know the process is extremely victimizing.” Local news media also noted that Carmona’s goodwill had been important to several of his past aides, who obtained important jobs partly due to the prestige of having worked for him.
In her complaint, Brito wrote: “I am very afraid of what this could lead to, but I cannot continue remaining silent.”