Written by: Emeline Leonard
Carlota Lucumi – martyr in the fight against slavery -, Mariana Grajales – national figure in the fight for independence in the 19th century -, Tania la Guerrillera – communist revolutionary and loyal support for Che Guevara -, Celia Sanchez – first wife of Fidel Castro’s rebel army -… These four women, among many others, have occupied a very special place in the history of this Caribbean Island state. Cuban women have always been at the heart of struggles and fought for their rights and emancipation. Since 1959 and the advent of the “Revolución dentro de la revolución”, official policies have allowed an improvement in the condition of Cuban women. The establishment of a communist regime on the island resulted in the establishment of formal and legal gender equality, a break with the system that had persisted until then. But this official gender egalitarianism very quickly turned out to be only a horizon, by definition unattainable. In a society where patriarchy is structural and machismo is omnipresent, women’s empowerment, which can be defined as the process of empowerment of the female population within society, proves to be very complicated. The “new woman” praised by Fidel Castro does not, in reality, exist. Inequalities persist, as do gender stereotypes, behaviors and actions that interiorise women, sometimes going so far as to kill them.
If mentalities are evolving and society is changing little by little, the government’s efforts seem insufficient to allow the full integration of Cuban women into society. Historically subordinate to male power, women have gradually emancipated themselves from this supervision. The rise of feminism in recent years is proof of a growing challenge to established power, forms of patriarchal domination that survive in Cuban society, and of a necessary change. Activism tends to move the lines. This feminism reflects new aspirations for women. Therefore, in this first article, it will be a question of providing an overall vision of the place of women in Cuban society, as well as the evolution of these civil, social, economic, political, and cultural rights. It will also involve discussing gender inequalities which persist and are firmly anchored on the island.
Progress Over Time: Towards an Improvement in the Situation of Cuban Women
For a long time, Cuban women were relegated to the private sphere, appearing totally dependent on men and having to conform to what was dictated to them by social norms. She was reduced to the role of the good mother, the good wife, dedicating herself to household chores, a true angel of the home and to the education of the children. However, notable changes have been noted since the mid-19th century. Cuba has developed egalitarian policies unique in the history of the status of women, breaking with the model established until then. Cuba is thus gradually recognizing the rights of women to health, education, work, the occupation of positions at the highest level of the State, etc.
In 1959, Fidel Castro came to power. It is the advent and lasting anchoring of a socialist regime on the island. The egalitarian ideal being at the center of the Castro project, the State is gradually establishing equal rights between the sexes. A policy of women’s liberation was quickly put in place based on the feminization of employment (with a massive literacy campaign), the affirmation of women in the public sphere, their economic independence, and the disappearance bonds of subordination to man. Fidel Castro thus proclaimed the advent of a “new woman”.
Fidel Castro also wants to make Cuba, internationally, a model in terms of gender equality. From then on, from the 1960s but especially over the last thirty years, Cuban policies relating to the status of women are in line with the texts of the United Nations, which have also recognized that Cuba has not stopped move towards achieving full gender equality. Cuba is the first country to sign and the second to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1979. Cuba also adopts the Vienna Program on Human Rights of December 1993 In 1995, the island participated in the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing. Finally, Cuba signed, in 1997, the decree law of the National Action Plan of the Republic of Cuba. More recently, Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development pushes the Cuban government to act for gender equality.
In addition, total gender equality is enshrined and enshrined in the Constitution, a true tool of the revolution. Adopted on February 24, 1976, it proclaims equality of rights and duties without any distinction, through Chapter IV. Women enjoy the same rights as men in the economic, social, political, family and legal fields. The State must ensure the exercise of his rights. Article 41 grants women a fair and protective social position and enshrines total gender equality. Article 44, for its part, reaffirms the fundamental principle of legal equality of genders and condemns all discrimination and inequalities (detailed in articles 42 and 43).
In addition, Cuba is seeing its economic sphere become exponentially more feminized. Indeed, since 1959, women have occupied a growing place in the Cuban productive sphere. The Cuban woman, long excluded from the world of work and representing only 10% of the active population in the 1950s, is gradually investing in this sphere. They represented nearly 30% of the active population at the beginning of the 1980s. The latest Cuban report on gender equality from 2016 confirms this feminization of employment: 45.1% of women had paid work at this period. In addition, certain management positions, long reserved for men, are gradually opening up. But if the improvements are notable, gender logic persists, salaries are not the same for the same level of qualification. Women are also overrepresented in certain sectors such as personal services, health and education. They are also much less present in other sectors such as catering, agriculture or manufacturing industries. Nevertheless, the economic participation of women is indeed an essential factor for their empowerment and greater equality (ENIG – Encuesta Nacional sobre Igualdad de Género of 2016).
Notable progress should also be noted in the political and judicial spheres. In 2020, women occupy a significant place in the Cuban political sphere. They make up 53.22% of the National Assembly, making the island the 4th country in the world with the highest proportion of women within its Assembly in 2015. In addition, that same year, there were 7 women ministers, they represented 48% of the Council of State, 75% of court presidencies, 61% of provincial judges and 51.37% of the country’s supreme judges. Progress in terms of political representation is real. In comparison and according to UN figures, women around the world occupy 25% of parliamentary seats in 2020 and nearly 22% of ministerial positions, well below the Cuban figures.
At the top of the state, leaders also decided to act. The Cuban state seems to be gradually becoming aware of deeply rooted inequalities. Since the end of October 2020, Cuba has had a new programmatic document for the empowerment and emancipation of women. The Programa Nacional para el Adelanto de las Mujeres – PAM – was approved by the Council of Ministers on October 30. Hopes for this new program are high. According to Teresa Amarelle Boué – general secretary of the FMC (Federación de Mujeres Cubanas) – it is a matter of integrating into a single synthetic document the relative objectives, goals and actions that respond to the Cuban Agenda for Equality genres. The program’s areas of action are as follows: economic emancipation, education, prevention, access to decision-making spheres, sexual health, etc. The innovative side of this program is essentially based on the transversal nature of gender approaches and the legal system, on the recognition of structural machismo and the persistence of manifestations of violence.
Furthermore, the improvement in the condition of Cuban women is also reflected in the right to abortion. Cuba is one of the few countries in Latin America to have legalized abortion, recently joined by Argentina. It was decriminalized in 1936. A woman could then only abort for three reasons: to save her life or avoid serious damage to her health, in the event of rape or in the event of possible transmission of a serious hereditary disease to the foetus. In addition, a certain tolerance towards abortion already existed since certain private clinics performed abortions. Official decriminalization took place in 1987. From then on and according to the Penal Code of 1978 (article 320.1), it is only a crime if it is committed for profit, by non-medical personnel, without the consent of the person or outside health establishments. It is completely free and can be done up to 6 weeks of pregnancy. It represents an important victory for the women of the island and their sexual rights. Sociologist and professor at the University of Havana, Reina Fleitas, also sees it as “an example of a gender-based approach to health”. Doctor Alberto Roque (bioethics researcher and activist for respect for free sexual orientation and gender identity) also recalls that “The right of women to decide over their body is inalienable and must continue to be defended in Cuba”.
However, the realities of this right to abortion need to be nuanced. According to figures from the Anuario Estadístico de Salud for the year 2019, produced by the Cuban Ministry of Health, under the aegis of, among others, UNICEF, WHO and PAHO, 73,661 Abortions were officially carried out on women and girls aged 12 to 49. This corresponds to 39.8 abortions per 100 pregnant women. However, these figures do not reflect reality. According to Maria Elena Benírez Pérez, doctoral student in economics at the University of Havana, there has been an underestimate of the level of abortion in recent years. Furthermore, even if these figures seem impressive, they are much less significant than around thirty years ago. In 1986, 160,926 abortions were recorded, which then corresponded to 49.1 abortions per 100 pregnant women. These figures can be explained by the low use of contraception on the island: it is estimated that only 76.8% of Cuban women of childbearing age with a registered partner use it. In addition, there are numerous obstacles to this right to abortion on the island. Doctor Alberto Roque, cited earlier in this article, identified these difficulties: the robustness of patriarchy as an ideology, the existence of pro-life positions, growing social inequalities, increasing poverty, economic approaches of the State in relation to low birth rates, indiscriminate use of abortion as a contraceptive method.
Inequalities That Persist and Constrain Women
Cuba has apparently progressed considerably towards the empowerment of women in many areas. However, the reality is more complex, and society is still unequal, macho and patriarchal, as sociologist Clotilde Proveyer recalls in her writing. The roles traditionally assigned to gender persist, but so do inequalities in the private and public spheres. These preconceived sociocultural roles, already firmly anchored on the island well before the revolution, continue to be part of normality. Cuban women are constrained in their actions and their condition, despite equal legal conditions between the sexes. Violence – including femicide – are taboo subjects in Cuba but very real. For sociologist Reina Fleitas, in Cuba “the silence or devaluation of the situation of women is a constant”.
There are many examples of gender inequality. In the private sphere, the distribution of domestic tasks is unbalanced. This first example, which may seem trivial, is in reality a sad reflection of society and its many disparities. The family is in Cuba, according to the Constitution, “the fundamental cell of society”. In a society where patriarchy as an ideology persists, women are often seen as dependent on men, relegated to the private sphere, with the public sphere reserved for men. The gendered division of household tasks continues. Of course, it is far from being specific to the island, but it allows us to become aware of the inequalities. Indeed, according to the 2016 ENIG, women do more than 86% of the cooking, more than 84% of the ironing, and nearly 90% of the cleaning. More than 34% of them are responsible for looking after sick children and almost 35% for taking them to the doctor if necessary).
Furthermore, within Cuban society, gender-based violence is a social reality that goes unnoticed. It is a truly taboo subject, just like that of femenicide. According to ENIG, 39.6% of the women surveyed (aged 15 to 74) declared having suffered violence during their life, within the framework of their relationships with their partner and 26.7% having been victims of violence in the last 12 months. Social violence is a social problem on the island. However, there is no public policy on this subject. For psychologist and researcher Ailynn Torres, gender-based violence is a social, structural, political and cultural problem that requires public intervention. In addition, 39.6% of women and 43% of men consider that aggression within the couple (of whatever form: physical, psychological, sexual) is a problem specific to the latter, no one should therefore interfere in it and even less denounce it in public. Nearly 61% of the population thinks that women tolerate mistreatment because intrinsically, they would like it. Only 3.7% of women victims of abuse sought help from one of the social organizations. Thus, attacks are allegedly justified by these beliefs. Furthermore, if femicide – a contraction of the words “woman” and “homicide” which designates the murder of a woman or a girl because of their gender, that is to say for the simple reason that they are women – is not specific to the island, it is very present. Cuba is one of the only countries in the Latin American region not to define femicide in its Penal Code. No law or legal texts come to regulate it or even punish it or qualify it as a crime. The latest numerical data provided by official Cuban institutions dates back to 2016 in its ENIG.
During this year, 47 women were victims of femicide on the island. However, to compensate for these shortcomings, independent organizations, concerned about the seriousness of the phenomenon, publish their own statistics. According to the YoSíTeCreo platform (support platform for women victims of gender-based violence) and in its latest census of November 20, 2020, Cuba recorded at least 25 feminicides and three infanticides documented by independent observers. The majority of victims were between 15 and 35 years old. These women were mainly killed by their partners (12 of the 25 deaths) or ex-partners (10), seven of whom already had a history. In other cases, there were no previous complaints. This organization has also opened a Feminicide Observatory which aims to become “a site dedicated to the memory of women who died from sexist violence”. She also calls for specific regulations to protect women and condemns the silence of the authorities.
Finally, another form of discrimination, which particularly affects Cuban women, is prostitution. When he came to power in 1959, Fidel Castro decided to put an end to the “social evil” which in his eyes was prostitution (called on the island Jineterismo, this term contains a very particular meaning specific to Cuba which is in reality to be distinguished from prostitution). For the latter, “Prostitution is a consequence of the regime of exploitation of man by man” and goes against the egalitarian socialist ideal. Social policies are then put in place to make it disappear. Brothels and nightclubs are closed and, through a rehabilitation campaign for prostitutes, sex workers are pushed to find new employment deemed more dignified thanks to training offered by the government. In 1966, the rehabilitation policy was completed: prostitution was officially excluded from the institutional functioning of the Caribbean Island. However, in reality it is far from having been eradicated. Many women and young girls fall into prostitution which is now clandestine. At the beginning of the 1990s, the government decided to encourage the development of tourism, thus favoring and against its will sex tourism on the island, as highlighted by Velia Cecilia Bobes, doctor of sociology.
During this decade, jineterismo gradually became this “scourge” again. Operation Lacra, decided by the government, began in 1998 with the aim once again of eradicating jineterismo, but nothing worked. This underground economy continues to grow. Successive crises since the 1990s have pushed certain women, in extreme precariousness, into prostitution to support themselves and their families. Prostitution has long been denied as such, the jiinetera who must provide for her needs is therefore not a prostitute like the others. It was also gradually tolerated, socially accepted and viewed with indulgence by the Cuban population. Suffering, loss of self-esteem is silenced. For the government, the phenomenon has no structural cause since it was eliminated during the revolution. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Violence Against Women has stated that it is “deeply concerned that the state does not recognize the existence of the exploitation of prostitution.
The achievements of the revolution are real. The condition of Cuban women has improved in many areas. However, the advent of the “new woman” praised by Fidel Castro did not take place. Society remains patriarchal, macho, inequalities and gender stereotypes persist. These elements can explain the rise in power of feminism and feminist organizations independent of power. Protest is growing on the island. The second part of this file will therefore focus on showing the full power of Cuban feminism. The authorities are singled out for their silence, initiatives to improve the condition of Cuban women are multiplying. Activism tends to move the lines.
The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author.
To cite this production: Leonard, Emeline (04/12/2023), The Cuban Woman and Her Role in Society: Between Progress, Persistent Inequalities and The Rise of Feminism (1/2), Gender in Geopolitics Institute. https://igg-geo.org/?p=17388