HAVANA TIMES — President Raul Castro’s speech during the Global Leaders’ Conference on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women: A Commitment to Action was very well received by participants. I don’t know whether everyone gets a courtesy applause, no matter what they say, but he got quite the ovation.
I realize that it’s hard to develop many ideas in the limited time allotted, which is perhaps why the president chose to focus on numbers. Figures are an easy way to conceal information and reveal what we want people to see.
He began by mentioning thorny issues affecting women worldwide. He said women constitute 70 percent of the world’s 2.7 billion poor and two thirds of the almost 800 million illiterate adults on the planet. He reminded participants of the shocking reality that more than 300,000 women die during labor because of preventable complications. He also highlighted that many women earn less than men for doing the same job, emphasizing the great many women who die, become displaced or refugees during armed conflict, as well the high percentage who are the victims of physical and sexual abuse and human trafficking.
After such a preamble, anyone would give a sigh of relief to hear any positive data, particularly if that data refers to Cuba, the first country to sign and the second to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
It was the right moment for Raul Castro to mention that the life expectancy of Cuban women at birth is over 80 years, that they represent 48% of all State employees, 66.8% of the most technically and professionally qualified workforce, 65% of those who finish their university careers and 48% of members of the Cuban parliament. It was also the time to mention that Cuba’s maternal mortality rate is of 21.4 for every 100,000 live births.
Was any of this a lie? No, I don’t believe it was – I believe all of the figures he quoted are exact and based on studies, research and analysis. Behind the numbers, however, there are subtleties and realities that aren’t being described.
Once university graduates of both genders start to work somewhere – and regardless of whether they’ve finished Masters, post-graduate courses or PhDs) – they earn laughable wages with which it is impossible to maintain a home and achieve true, financial independence from their parents, let alone start a family.
Many of our elderly women (and men) have access to free health services, but their quality of life in general is not good. Those who don’t have relatives living abroad face a real ordeal to make ends meet every month. Homes for the elderly – even those that don’t offer the best conditions – are overcrowded. Numerous senior citizens continue to work and depend on the salaries they earn, as their pensions are measly. Other do retire but, instead of resting, they have to continue “roughing it” out on the street to make the extra cash they need to ride out the storm.
The much-celebrated 48 % of women who make up the Cuban parliament goes unnoticed. Even though women constitute nearly half of representatives, their voices become diluted in the official discourse, their work becomes confused with that of other members of parliament, who thoughtlessly approve whatever the Party decides and barely even discuss the issues that affect us all.
In a world where some sixty million children are denied schooling and six million die before the age of five, it is indeed a privilege to live in a country where, from my balcony every morning, I see a veritable torrent of boys and girls in red uniforms happily and naively heading to school. The issue is that these children go to school not only to learn how to add, subtract, read and write. They also go there to be injected with the ideology that a handful of adults have concocted for them.
During his speech, Raul Castro made no mention of the right to free association. Until 1958, Cuba knew a broad range of delegations, associations, centers, leagues, foundations, cultural organizations, committees and clubs where women of similar interests (including health, culture, education, politics and others) could gather. Today, Cuban women are “forced” to belong to a single organization which, being the only One, cannot accommodate the broad range of interests of the island’s many women.
He also made no mention of the young women who, referred to with the euphuism of “inmates,” are imprisoned for long periods of time on charges of prostitution, a crime that isn’t even contemplated by the Penal Code or the Cuban Report on the Juridical and Penal Struggle against Human Trafficking and Other Forms of Sexual Abuse, presented in November of 2014.
The president also omitted the government coercion and reprisals brought to bear on women who think differently. In all likelihood, while Raul Castro read his address before the UN, Cuba’s Ladies in White, a group made up exclusively of women who are neither terrorists nor the kidnappers of children – were being repressed (or, in the best of scenarios, harassed), like they are every Sunday.
Even if we managed to change “our cultural patterns, such that family duties were shared by both men and women and more and more women began to occupy decision-making positions in government,” much would remain to be done. Regardless of the favorable numbers presented or the actions undertaken to improving women’s existence, as long as a single woman, a single human being continues to be punished for thinking differently, no one will be able to speak of respect for our rights – neither feminists nor government officials.
* Statement made by Raul Castro during a speech delivered at the Global Leaders’ Conference on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women: A Commitment to Action