Access to justice and institutional regendering: The case of the National Prosecution Bureau of Chile


In 2017, the National Prosecution Bureau of Chile created the Special Unit for Human Rights, Gender-Based Violence, and Sex Crimes, becoming a milestone for criminal prosecution policies as the first time a state institution in Chile used the term ‘gender-based violence’ explicitly in its title. There was no law in the country that addressed and sanctioned this behaviour—recognising it as a social phenomenon—at the time of the Unit's creation. What does the creation of this new Unit mean for access to justice from a gender perspective? To answer this question, we have critically analysed the creation of this Unit as a case study from a feminist institutionalist standpoint. We found that this institutional change might bring a broadening in access to justice for women, girls and LGBTQI+ persons by implementing a gender perspective.

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  1. 1.

    The relations between individuals and institutions are studied by neo-institutionalism (March and Olsen 1989). This theoretical current defines institutions as organisations with laws, rules, norms and practices, as well as a set of regulated social practices—such as the State and its organisational divisions. The latter can be treated as political actors because they have internal coherence and autonomy. In addition, institutions order and set the vision of policies and define the identities of the people who apply them. Thus, they shape the behaviour of civil servants, since they constrain the actions people can perform, and therefore, the decisions they make. Hence, the state affects and is affected by society, and democracy depends on the implementation of democratic policies through bureaucracy. Moreover, institutions are defined by formal rules (written, binding and known by all) and informal rules (known but not written nor binding) (March and Olsen 1989).

  2. 2.

    “(…) The first is displacement. New institutions are created either to replace old rules (which tends to be rapid and is often internally driven) or in direct competition with existing institutions (more likely to result in gradual change) … Normally, new institutions are created by actors (usurpers) who were losers under an old system that had little discretion within its rules, and defenders of the status quo had a weak veto. Layering is the second type of change in which new rules are introduced alongside or on top of existing ones, but they are not in competition with them. Actors have some power to create new institutions but not enough to displace old institutions. Defenders of the status quo often have high veto possibilities, and there is little discretion in the enforcement of existing rules so institutional challengers cannot alter the existing rules…The third form is drift – the impact of existing rules changes because of shifts in the environment, so institutions have new meaning… conversion is the fourth form of change. Actors do not have enough power to change institutions or else they are sympathetic to them… But because of ambiguity in the rules and the weakness of change actors, there are often problems with enforcement” (Waylen 2014, 217).

  3. 3.

    Law 19.640 Establece la Ley Orgánica Constitucional del Ministerio Público.

  4. 4.

    Recommendations for the implementation of a gender policy in the Chilean Judicial Branch.

  5. 5.

    The term criollo stands for people born in Latin America from Spanish or Portuguese parents.

  6. 6.

    Law 20.545 Modifica las Normas de Protección a la Maternidad e Incorpora el Permiso de Postnatal Parental.

  7. 7.

    Waylen (2016) and the authors included in the volume have found some traces of regendering in the Executive Branch under Michelle Bachelet’s administration. However, the old rules are still present despite the changes intended by Bachelet.

  8. 8.

    Law 20.609 Establece Medidas Contra la Discriminación.

  9. 9.

    Design an institutional policy of access to justice with a gender perspective, to facilitate the participation of survivors, respect their rights and provide more effective protection; ensure that the work processes allow effective compliance with the obligations of its officials; and implement permanent programmes of specialisation, training and awareness for all officials. These programmes must include the phenomenon of gender violence, its forms and manifestations, as legal aspects related to human rights (national and international) with emphasis on the protection of victims and survivors; establish measures tending to promote the collaboration of inter-institutional information exchange, mainly between the Public Ministry, the Judicial Power and the police; promote multidisciplinary work among professionals from different areas, especially psychology, social work, sociology and anthropology; enable adequate spaces for survivors; elaborate protocols that allow standardizing the investigative practices at the national level, that consecrate the minimum diligences that should be practised in these causes; evaluate the effective compliance with the instructions and guidelines given to officials; and create specialised units in gender violence that aim to analyse this phenomenon in the country. Likewise, one of the recommendations that have emerged in recent years is the creation of gender violence observatories, whose primary purpose is to address their treatment through their different manifestations in the criminal sphere (Sepúlveda and Sovino 2017, 158–9; translated by the authors).

  10. 10.

    Resolución FN/MP Nº 2078/2017. Modifica competencias y denominación de la Unidad Especializada que indica, y cambia su nombre por Unidad Especializada en Derechos Humanos, Violencia de Género y Delitos Sexuales.

  11. 11.

    OAS. Convención Interamericana para prevenir, sancionar y erradicar la violencia contra la mujer “Convención de Belém do Pará”, 1994.

  12. 12.

    Law 20.084 Establece un Sistema de Responsabilidad de los Adolescentes por Infracciones a la Ley Penal.

  13. 13.

    Law 19.874 Facilita la Denuncia en Caso de Atentados Sexuales y Permite una Mejor Investigación del Delito.

  14. 14.

    It is important to keep in mind the classification of sex crimes, stipulated in several articles of the Criminal Code, under the Seventh Title: ‘Crimes and felonies against the order of families, against public morality and against sexual integrity.’ Thus, it is possible to see that sexual integrity is not considered in the people’s individuality, but rather it is framed in the context of public morality and families.

  15. 15.

    However, at the time of writing, a new law called Ley Gabriela regarding femicide was passed (30 January 2020), which re-defines femicide for the Chilean legal system, broadening its characterisation and including it as a crime when it takes place in dating, an informal relationship or a past relationship (Vergara Ruz 2020).

  16. 16.

    UN Convención para la eliminación de toda forma de discriminación en contra de la mujer (CEDAW), 1979.

  17. 17.

    Which was actualised in 2020 by Ley Gabriela (Supra n 7 at 18).

  18. 18.

    Law 20.480 Modifica el Código Penal y la Ley Nª 20.066 Sobre Violencia Intrafamiliar, estableciendo el “Femicidio”, aumentando las penas aplicables a este delito y reforma las normas sobre parricidio.

  19. 19.

    LAW 20.066 Sobre Violencia Intrafamiliar.

  20. 20.

    Oficio FN Nº948/2017. Remite Convenio de Desempeño Institucional 2018.


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Special thanks to Jeffrey Ian Ross (Ph.D.) and the anonymous reviewers for their useful comments on this article. The formative process that gave birth to this article was funded by ANID, CONICYT PFCHA/MAGÍSTER BECA NACIONAL/2017 - 22170167.

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Barraza Uribe, B., Salinas, M.I. Access to justice and institutional regendering: The case of the National Prosecution Bureau of Chile. Fem Leg Stud (2021).

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  • Access to justice
  • Chile
  • Gender
  • Institutions
  • Justice
  • Regendering