Pope Francis on Tuesday visits a women’s prison in Santiago, during the first leg of his pastoral journey to Chile and Peru. He’ll meet with around five hundred prisoners, together with the chaplains and a religious sister in charge of pastoral care for the inmates.
The ‘San Joaquin’ Penitentiary Center was built over a hundred and fifty years ago to accommodate around 850 prisoners. Today it houses over 1.400 women charged with a variety of offenses, from theft or drug trafficking to murder and other more serious crimes.
Julia Eugenia Martinez is a journalist and professor at the Catholic University of Chile. She is also former president of the world association of female journalists, founded in Mexico to promote equal rights and pay for women in her profession. She talked to our correspondent in Santiago, Stefan Von Kempis, about the women the Pope will be meeting inside the detention centre….
Martinez says she saw many of them singing in a choir at a recent university celebration, looking well dressed and well prepared, “like any other women”.
But she noted that many are imprisoned with their babies, who have to leave the facility when they are two or three years old. She says women in Chilean society, especially in poor areas, are “so important” since they function as “the mother and the father, the provider of food and everything, so when you take that woman to prison you really destroy the family”.
Women as providers for Chilean families
Martinez says the San Joaquin prison has several facilities to train women with professional skills that give them a better chance to find work when they finish their sentences. She adds that some Chileans have asked why the Pope is not visiting the children’s jail, where orphans and others from broken homes are housed together with young offenders and a number are known to have died in detention.
Speaking about the rights of women in Chile, Martinez says journalists like her are still fighting for the same wages and opportunities as their male counterparts. She points to one recent positive development, where women are allowed to take six months maternity after birth, which was not possible in her day.
In rural areas, she says some women do seasonal work picking fruit or vegetables, so are out of work for many months of the year, causing a lot of difficulties.