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Secrets revealed: women victims of sexual violence as torture during Chile's era of political repression, 1973-1990.


This report was written in the context of the 30-year commemoration of the military coup in Chile in 1973. The objective of the study is to contribute a gender perspective to the nation's historical memory of the repression that occurred under the dictatorship.

The democratization process that began in Chile in 1990 was founded on the acknowledgement and documentation of human rights violations. Chile's social movements, including human rights organizations and groups of survivors of repression, lobbied authorities constantly to confront the nation's past, leading to the creation of the Rettig Commission and the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture, which investigated Chilean cases of detention and disappearance between 1973 to 1990. In spite of human rights organizations' criticism of these commissions and their respective reports,1 they did confirm that the State sanctioned the torture and disappearance of thousands of men and women.

In spite of these advances, the detention of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in England in 2000 reignited the social debate and highlighted the limitations of Chile's confrontation of the past and the search for justice for human rights violations. In response, the government of President Eduardo Frei created an opportunity for dialogue, a Mesa del Dialogo, to discover the final resting place of Chile's disappeared. When this objective was not achieved, women's organizations responded with another moral and political challenge: to know what had happened to women who were pregnant when they were seized. This is the first initiative that specifically addressed the grave human rights violations suffered by women during the dictatorship.

The need to bring human rights abuses into the open as part of the healing process was one of the principal demands of human rights organizations, presented to the president of Chile in a 2001 report by the Ethics Commission against Torture. The report states that more than 300,000 people were victims of torture in Chile. FASIC, CODEPU and the Chilean Physicians' Association report similar statistics. However, neither the Commission report nor official government documents acknowledge women as the specific targets of torture, despite international recognition that gender violence increases during times of armed conflict and other national crises. One implicit goal of the study was to obtain an official document drafted by the Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture stating that agents of the State and those who collaborated with them systematically used or permitted the use of sexual violence as a method of torture during the dictatorship. This means that sexual violence was not a private practice of individual agents, but rather an institutionalized aspect of torture.

Examining repression in terms of its impact on women and paying special attention to how women were affected by torture has not been easy. Often, people involved in supporting, registering and documenting cases, including government officials and the actual victims themselves, do not comprehend that gender-specific violence occurred or that such a thing even exists. As a result, attempting to calculate the true magnitude of gender-based violence is complicated by how cases were documented by the institutions, which were themselves limited by social discourse that prevented women from being able to report their torture.

The aim of this study is to shed light on the widespread practice of sexual and gender violence against women during the dictatorship, precisely because its occurrence has rarely been discussed and often denied, even by the general population. Other principal objectives of the report include describing, analyzing and interpreting sexual violence against women as a systematic method of torture, as well as disseminating the results of the analysis as a form of recognition and reparation for the women who suffered these violations. The basic framework for analysis assumes that gender played an important role in women's torture while also taking into account the other political and ideological factors involved.

This study also attempts to classify the characteristics of sexual violence used as torture, where and how it was executed, if any specific pattern or model was used, and how the memory of violation was suppressed by both the individual's and country's collective memory. Information provided by victims during interviews, such as what they do or do not remember, the construction of their memories, how their memories evolved over time and what role institutions played in the creation of these memories are also important.

Three basic facts emerge from the experiences of women victims of torture throughout history and around the world. The first is that most women who were victims of detention of torture suffered some kind of sexual violence. The second is that the sexual violence practiced against women constituted a more elaborate form of torture that utilized coercion, threats, intimidation and the use of force and physical and psychological violence to degrade, humiliate and destroy the victim based on her gender. Finally, the institutionalized practice of sexual violence was hidden and never mentioned by society, individuals or institutions working for human rights, or even by the victims themselves for various reasons, including the gender subordination to which they had grown accustomed.

Principal Findings of the Study

a) Sexual Violence: A Widespread, Systematic Method of Torture During Chile's Political Repression and its Purpose

Sexual violence was used as a method of torture throughout the country during the dictatorship from 1973 to 1990. It was practiced systematically and institutionally in almost all known detention centers, concentration camps, stadiums and clandestine prisons, such as Villa Grimaldi, the Cuartel Ollague, the underground parking lot of the Plaza de la Constitucion, the National Stadium, the Tres Alamos and Cuatro Alamos Detention Centers, La Venda Sexy (a detention center suggestively nicknamed "The Sexy Blindfold"), the house at Londres 38, the Air Force's Academia de Guerra, the Cuartel Borgono, the El Bosque Air Base, and the Buin Regiment, and in the provinces, the Tejas Verdes detention center, the navel training ship Esmeralda, and Isla Quiriquina. These are the clandestine prisons most often mentioned by women in the Metropolitan Region interviewed for this study.

Sexual violence as torture was committed by all three branches of the Armed Forces (Army, Navy and Air Force), the regular police (Carabineros), police detectives (Investigaciones), soldiers, intelligence agents, and by guards and civilians involved in the business of repression.

Sexual violence was practiced during all the periods of repression. Both the DINA (Direccion Nacional de Inteligencia, National Department of Intelligence) and the CNI (Central Nacional de Inteligencia, National Intelligence Agency) used animals as part of the sexual torture of women. Their goal was the maximum degradation of the victim and the greatest possible degree of humiliation. According to the women, this was the worst of all forms of punishment and torture.

From September 11, 1973 (the day Pinochet led the military coup) onwards, women were classified as a "dangerous" group because of the challenge they posed to the new social order and the masculine hierarchy imposed by the dictatorship, feminist scholar Ximena Bunster explains? The detention of women, not only for their own political activism but also for their association with politically active men, was a first sign of the gender domination to come. The dictatorship's system of repression specifically targeted women. While only some women were tortured, all women were terrorized. Women who dared defy the dictatorship's model of appropriate female behavior placed themselves at clear risk of reprisal.

This reprisal took the form of sexual violence as torture--a real and symbolic expression of the dictatorship's new mandate for women. According to Bunster, the mother/ wife role in the private sphere was "... the only respectable role for a woman in a society that defines her as inherently inferior to man and from whom she derives her secondary sexual identity as mother, sister, wife or partner." (3)

Sexual violence was used to dominate, control, intimidate and humiliate victims, ultimately robbing them of their female identity. (4) Bunster describes this process as the "double brutalization" of women; the dictatorship socialized "women in a determined manner, only to later use their socialization as a method of torture." (5) It should be kept in mind that the military coup was conceived as a defensive reaction designed to maintain Chile's traditional system and paralyze transformations occurring in the 1960s and 1970s. The coup sought to maintain hegemony by halting transformations in Chilean society, politics, economy and culture and the changing nature of female/male relationships. The dictatorship's solution was to impose gender policies that reconstituted and reaffirmed traditional gender relationships and to enforce this ideology with military force.

The dictatorship exalted one exclusive female identity, which all women were expected to assume: the virgin, the mother-wife, a loyal partner for the soldier, and the female savior of the motherland (a maternal figure for all Chileans). This religious representation of women was accompanied by a series of discursive and control mechanisms--social, legal and, when necessary, repressive--to forcibly shape a new gender order.

During the dictatorship, women were "punished" both literally and symbolically if they transgressed the culturally prescribed gender role. In accordance with the military State's theory of a "counterinsurgency" and the need for "national security," women were either labeled as "enemies" or "the women of enemies," which then justified gender policies that relied on the systematic use of sexual violence to maintain men's dominance over women. (6) Therefore, sexual violence was not merely a repercussion of this system, but a fundamental aspect of its logic.

b) Characteristics of Women Victims of Sexual Violence

Women of every age, socioeconomic status and ethnicity were targets of sexual violence, including pregnant women. Women were raped alone or in groups, either by individuals or by groups of men. Women were used as part of a war strategy: they were an occupied territory, brutalized in a tactic aimed at demoralizing the enemy. Women were also booty--a reward at parties and celebrations. A woman's ethnicity or class was used as the subject of further humiliation or mockery. Women party members, unaffiliated women, professionals, students, workers, farmers and homemakers were equally subjected to violence. All women who were arrested became part of a single representation of woman in the eyes of agents of military repression: the traitorous whore.

Sexual violence was used indiscriminately on pregnant women who were separated from their children, on fourteen-year-old girls who bore the children of their rapists, and on 68year-old women raped in front of their sons.

An analysis of the interviews with women victims has revealed two types of women who were subjected to torture for politic reasons: 1) women who belonged to leftwing parties or who were tortured for their political actions, and 2) women who had relationships with men who were politically active.

Most of the women interviewed belong to the former group, which is clear evidence of the significant role that women played in Chilean politics in the 1970s and 1980s. Women militants were demonized by the dictatorship's discourse, which encouraged and justified the sexual violence used against them.

The second group includes women who were imprisoned and tortured based on their relationships with men who were considered enemies of the military regime. The gender-based nature of torture is more evident in these cases. Women were jailed as the "possessions" of wanted men, reaffirming their subordinate and passive character by treating them as the extension of a man's ego. In this case, sexual torture and specifically rape was aimed at tarnishing the "honor" of the enemy and thereby weakening him. A woman's sexuality was treated as a possession and used as an instrument to socially and morally harm the father, son or husband who should have been protecting her.

c) The Cycle of Silence

For each victim, the significance of torture varies according to individual conceptions of gender. Many of the women interviewed found it difficult to understand their experiences of torture through a gender perspective--in other words, to perceive which aspects of their torture were based on their sex. While some women were able to distinguish the differences, other women do not see the torture as gender-based, but feel that men and women were treated similarly.

Rather than recognizing that the torture itself was gendered, these women identify differences in how men and women confronted their torture. The idea that "women could withstand more" or that they "revealed less" was repeated during interviews, highlighting the common belief that women have the capacity to tolerate more suffering in order to protect others.

"... No, no, there was no difference--the torture was the same, the same, the same, and even sometimes worse for the women than the men, which is to say that women could always stand more, men broke down almost immediately, but not the women, so they often tortured women more than men, because the men would scream out and then they'd take them away, but not the women ..."

The universally masculinized concept of torture helps explain why many victims final it difficult to recognize the gendered aspects of their own torture, making the particular type of suffering endured by women nearly invisible. The masculinized definition of torture invokes images of extreme physical torment: hanging, grilling, the application of electrical current, pau de arara (hanging the victim from a pole by the hands and feet), telefono (smacking the victim on both ears to rupture the eardrum), etc. From this perspective, the sexual torture and rape of women is simply labeled as "abuse."

However, there are more developed discourses that recognize sexual violence--both physical and psychological--as "torture." Nonetheless, a cycle of silence surrounds sexual violence as torture. Women victims of sexual torture often cannot and do not want to talk about their experience because there are no words to express what they endured.

During their interviews, many women stated that they almost never talk about the sexual torture they experienced during detention. Many factors contribute to women's silence. As mentioned previously, social constructions and subjective mechanisms prevent many women from recognizing their experience as torture. But even when women do realize that they were sexually tortured, they remain silent out of embarrassment, fear, to spare their loved ones more suffering or simply because they can not express their suffering.

Victims were not the only ones who generated this silence; healthcare professionals also failed to identify cases of sexual violence among their patients, either out of haste, fear or a lack of experience. At the same time, they knew that sexual violence was implicit in the detention of any woman. During the first few years, the topic simply wasn't mentioned or addressed even though it was assumed to have happened. Rape was one more fact to note on the history and physical exam. In this manner, professionals reinforced victims' silence.

Another contributing factor to the cycle of silence is that torture--and especially sexual violence as torture--appears insignificant in comparison with death, an option held by both healthcare providers and victims. Because survivors felt "lucky" simply to be alive, they rarely confronted their traumatic experiences, which commonly led to conflicting feelings. After all, what they had endured was nothing compared to what others had gone through. For example, victims often felt a sense of guilt for surviving:
 "... the suffering of your colleagues,
 when you saw them disappearing
 one by one, no face, no name,
 people arrived and then disappeared,
 either dead or relocated,
 their suffering, their torture--you
 know how it feels because it
 happened to you. You see all these
 things and you see the suffering of
 people who still haven't found their
 lost loved ones, and you can't help
 but feel guilty for having lived
 because every one of those people
 deserved the same opportunities
 that you had ..."

For many years, silence was also one of the necessary coping skills for survival in the military state. A context of fear and constant threat created a culture of silence even within the intimacy of the family. As the women explained: "You had to take care of the children, the family, your partner--keep them from being hurt or embarrassed, protect them from pain," as if the victim's experience could now become a form of torture for their family members, transforming them into the torturers of their loved ones by exposing them to the humiliation, horror and violation of intimacy that they had experienced. (7)

Not only the women who were victims of sexual torture, but all social actors who have helped to forge the construction and reconstruction of Chile's historic memory share responsibility for a chain of silence regarding the systematic practice of sexual violence as torture during the dictatorship.

This study hopes to break the cycle of silence. Silence reinforces gender violence and paralyzes the healing process for both the individual and society as a whole. The first step in the reparation process is an admission of the truth--one which takes into account the differences between women and men's experiences during the dictatorship.


(1.) These criticisms are related to the moment in which the reports were written, the limited range of violations they address, and even their lack of verifiable or accurate information.

(2.) Ximena Bunster, "Sobreviviendo mas alla del miedo," in La mujer ausente. Derechos humanos en el mundo (Ediciones de las Mujeres no. 15, Santiago, Chile: Isis Internacional, 1996).

(3.) Ibid., 51.

(4.) Since women's identity is based upon the autonomous control of their own bodies, violence becomes a tool through which women can be controlled.

(5.) Bunster, op. cit., 44.

(6.) Presentation by Jose Olavarria at a seminar at the Biblioteca Nacional, Santiago, Chile, September 26, 2003.

(7.) Margarita Diaz, psychologist at the Institute of Latin American Studies, ILAS, University of Texas at Austin.

The author is a psychologist at Chile's La Morada Women's Development Center. This article was prepared as part of a research project carried out by the Instituto de la Mujer (Women's Institute) and La Morada in Santiago, Chile.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Latin American and Caribbean Women's Health Network
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Article Details
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Author:Carrera, Carolina
Publication:Women's Health Journal
Geographic Code:3CHIL
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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