Before 1959, women’s experience of Cuban society was often one of oppression, exploitation, marginalisation and hardship. Few women worked and those that did often found themselves working as domestic servants or prostitutes for the international elite and mafia. Few women were educated and a strong culture of ‘machismo’, defined as a Latin notion of male superiority and aggressiveness, permeated all aspects of life for women.
Of course, it is important not to homogenise all women, experience depended not only on gender but on class, race, age and whether they lived in town or country. But overall, the picture was a bleak one in which women had limited opportunities and led a tough existence.
The Revolutionary leadership in 1959 therefore faced a huge task. From the very beginning the problem of gender inequality was tackled head on – not put off for a later stage. Gender equality was seen as integral to the general goals, the general struggle of the Revolution. Women’s rights were seen as interwoven with, not separate from, the essence of the Revolution. Fundamentally, this was because it was believed that a fair, non-discriminatory society could not be created whilst women were still oppressed.
This led to what Fidel coined the ‘Revolution within a Revolution’ and allowed for huge steps forward to be made, very quickly. It has resulted in Cuba being ranked first place for equality levels within Latin America and the Caribbean and 25th worldwide by the 2008 Global Gender Gap Report (the US ranks twenty seventh).
Cuba was the first country to sign and second to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and also has high levels of participation and representation in decision-making positions and has made huge educational advances.
It has also led to significant legal changes such as the introduction of Article forty four of the Constitution,
which ensures that women have complete equality under the law, and Law sixty-two of the Penal Code (1987), which ensures that discrimination and the violation of the rights of equality are defined as a crime.
Federation of Cuban Women
One of the first things the new leadership did was set up the FMC (Federacion de Mujeres Cubanas), which acts as testament to the notion that gender equality was part of the Revolution’s overall goals from the beginning.
Officially created in 1960, the FMC is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) with over three million members, which equates to eighty per cent of the entire female population. It is the largest mass organisation in Cuba and the largest women’s organisation in Latin America. FMC objectives include to ‘fight for full incorporation, participation and promotion of women into the economic, political, social and cultural life of the country in conditions of equal rights and opportunities’.
The FMC is the key leader in the struggle for equality and can be credited with initiating literacy drives for peasant women and prostitutes in 1959.
Groundbreaking FMC societal educational campaigns also attempted to root out machismo - this has even led to sex education in schools encompassing teaching of respectful attitudes not just towards women but the LGBT community too.
Cuba is known worldwide for its excellent and progressive health system which offers free healthcare to all. This, in particular, is seen as being particularly ‘women friendly’. The government introduced the Maternity Leave Bill (1974) which ensures that women are guaranteed a total of eighteen weeks paid leave with an extra two weeks if the birth is delayed (the US in comparison offers not a single week of paid leave). The Bill also includes ‘the option of an extended leave at 60 per cent pay until the child is one year old, with the right to return to the same job at the end of the leave’ - an option which can be taken by the mother or the father. The government also subsidises abortion and family planning, places a high value on pre-natal care and breastfeeding and offers ‘maternity housing’ to women before giving birth.
Focus is given to women not solely as recipients of healthcare but as providers too. Pioneering drives that encourage women to become doctors and nurses have led to more than half of doctors in Cuba being women (fifty-two per cent in 2008 according to the FMC). The importance given to women’s health has led to an impressive life expectancy of seventy-nine years according to a report published in The Guardian in 2007 – all achieved on a restricted budget.
Like healthcare, education in Cuba is free to everyone, including higher education. Education formed one of the core pillars of the Revolution. The theory being that by educating all people the old divisions would be eliminated and therefore everyone could move towards a just, fair and equal society. This has benefited women enormously and led to greater opportunities and independence.
Women have gradually filtered into the education system leading to the so-called ‘feminisation of education’. This makes for stark comparison with pre-revolutionary society in which girls and women (predominately in rural areas) were illiterate and confined to the home.
Economy and Politics
The proportion of women in the labour force in 1959 was twelve per cent, and as mentioned the work women were confined to was largely that of domestic servitude and prostitution. This differs vastly with life today in which women make up forty-nine per cent of the workforce.. Women are also guaranteed equal pay and through government childcare assistance and forward-thinking laws such as the Family Code Bill (1975), which is the official goal of equal participation in the household, women have been able to engage fully in working life. This had led to greater independence and a shift of power in gender relations.
Women are also changing the gender make-up of government. According to a report by UNIFEM, they held forty-three per cent of positions in parliament in 2008, compared to just under seventeen per cent in the US. This statistic ranks Cuba second in the world for female participation in parliament according to the 2008 Global Gender Gap Report. This success can largely be accredited to the introduction of quotas and various forms of positive discrimination.
It is important not to romanticise or idealise the position of women in Cuba, there are still challenges, problems and work to be done. For example, how to deal with the problem of prostitution, which despite being eradicated in the nineties has now returned due to the growth of tourism, (a phenomenon that inevitably brings with it a minority of male visitors who hold particular views of the ‘exotic’ Cuban female and exploit their greater economic power). Another challenge is that of cultural attitudes, which although have changed significantly in the last fifty years are still filtered with sexist dogmas.
The culture of machismo is still one of the main obstacles to overcome. As the late Vilma Espin, the FMC’s long-standing president once stated “a cultural tradition dating back centuries is not broken from one day to the next”.
Like here, until full equality has been achieved, until all areas of Cuban life are split fifty-fifty, it will be impossible to talk of complete success. Despite these continuous challenges there is much to remain positive about. Cuba has made huge advances towards equality, especially in areas of political participation and healthcare and in creating a progressive legal framework which sets the standard for what is acceptable treatment and acts as a point of reference that can be used for defending women’s rights.
These advances should also be put into context. Cuba is a developing country and so faces poverty and limited resources. It is regionally positioned within Latin America and the Caribbean in which a strong culture of machismo exists. It has also been subject to a long-standing blockade which again has led to limited resources. Its aheivements are therefore impressive in themselves, let alone when considered within these contexts.
Cuba’s advances are also extremely impressive when viewed in a global context - to think that despite all the shortcomings mentioned above it is still able to position itself highly worldwide with regards to equality levels.
Essentially, the Cuban experience can be seen as a model and a source of inspiration worldwide. It shows what can be achieved when a government and society have the values of justice, equality, and participatory democracy at the core of its belief system, ethos and framework for policy and practice.
Report by Lotte Deckers Dowber.