Cuba Education Gains-Contradictions

By Dalia Acosta

Not all Cuban girls see education as their best option.  Photo: Ken Bell
Not all Cuban girls see education as their best option. Photo: Ken Bell

HAVANA TIMES, July 12 (IPS) – Barely two years apart, the two sisters have had the same upbringing in Cuba, but Marlen and Ana have completely different aspirations.  Ana dreams of going to the university to become a professional, while Marlen thinks only of having boyfriends, getting married and having a calm and contented life at home.

“Maybe they’ll change with time, but we’ve noted the differences ever since they were born.  They were always different and they’ll continue being so.  In the end though, the important thing is that they’ve had the same opportunities and each one will be able to choose their own path,” said their father, Raul Gomez, 42.

For Alina Suarez, the girl’s 37-year-old mother, her daughters are a reflection of the times.  “When I was girl we all wanted to go to the university and most went, but now it’s no longer like that.  We’re seeing girls among the younger generation who don’t want to study and sometimes they don’t want to work either.”

“They dream of finding a successful man to take care of them.  I can’t say if it’s because of the economic crisis we’ve lived through in Cuba since the past decade or if it’s due to the macho culture we see piped-in through TV soaps, movies and videos.”

Residing in central Havana, the family is made up of two professionals, a 67-year-old grandmother and the 11 and 13-year-old girls.  Both children are in school since education in Cuba is mandatory up to the ninth grade throughout the country, even in the most remote areas.

In a show of independence and pragmatism, another youth – Adriana de la Nuez, 19 – surprised more than a few people around her when last year she announced she would transfer from university to go a vocational school.  “I opted to be a restoration worker.  It’s what I like, and who knows what will happen later,” she commented to IPS.

She, quite different from Marlen, doesn’t want to depend on anybody. “That’s something I learned at home since I was little,” she said.

Contradictions of Development

Evidencing the contradictions characteristic of development, Cuban society today shows the impact of a policy that declared education mandatory for girls and boys and promoted women’s access to higher education.  This came with the nationalization of all schools following the coming of the revolution in 1959.

Although Cuba had already demonstrated favorable educational indexes in the context of Latin America and the Caribbean in that decade, the priority given to education over the past 50 years has resulted in the fact that more than 99 percent of girls and boys now enroll in and complete primary school.

Girls exceed boys in enrollment at Junior High and beyond in today’s Cuba.  Photo: Caridad
Girls exceed boys in enrollment at Junior High and beyond in today’s Cuba. Photo: Caridad

“Gender disparity in education has now been eliminated.  Parity exists at the primary level, while girls exceed boys in enrollment at Junior High and beyond,” indicates the Second Report on the Fulfillment of the Millennium Development Objectives in Cuba.

The third objective of eight agreed upon in 2000 by the then 189 member countries of the United Nations (UN) seeks to eliminate gender inequality in primary and secondary education, “preferably” before the already past 2005 benchmark and at all levels of education before the end of 2015.

The achievement of parity in education is considered among the main indicators of promoting woman’s empowerment and equality between the sexes, though this indicator is supplemented by others such as access to paid employment in the non-agricultural sector and the proportion of seats occupied by women in national parliaments.

UN reports indicate that the net rate of enrollment in primary education in Latin America and Caribbean region reached 87 percent in 1990 and 95 percent in 2007.  Moreover, there are more women than men enrolled at the junior and senior high school level and the university level shows tendencies towards the same.

“Investment in the education of young women yields well-known benefits. When they receive an education, it is more likely that they will earn higher salaries and obtain better jobs,” assures a message from the secretary-general of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, for the celebration of World Population Day on Saturday July 11.

Data presented at the main activity held in Cuba on Thursday for World Population Day indicated that women represent 46 percent of this country’s work force in the civilian state sector, hold 39 percent of the executive positions and 43.2 percent of the country’s parliamentary seats.

According to Mayda Alvarez, the director of the Women’s Studies Center, among the contradictions observed today in achieving female self-sufficiency is the “still existing distance between the egalitarian ideals of many people and their inequitable practices, especially in the family and other environments in which socialization takes place.”

A Critical Look

The Cuban experience shows that the guarantee of access to education is only a good starting point toward gender equality.  “That access, in itself, only creates a base,” assured Susan McDade, resident coordinator of the United Nations System in Cuba.

The Cuban experience shows that the guarantee of access to education is only a good starting point toward gender equality.  Photo: Caridad
The Cuban experience shows that the guarantee of access to education is only a good starting point toward gender equality. Photo: Caridad

Beyond empowerment of Cuban women with regard to education and employment, McDade points to the impact of the general population’s aging, which transforms women into the primary caretakers of children, and sometimes of grandchildren and even the elderly.

As agents of change, “Mothers will have to educate children from very young so that they understand what contribution they should make to the family when they are older. They must come to understand that the girl, mother or woman is not the only one who can take care of the house and the family; this is a learning process that takes a long time,” she maintained.

Nor are laws that guarantee employment and equal wages for equal work automatic guarantees of change.  Studies carried out in Cuba demonstrate that, despite all of the nation’s guarantees, men continue to occupy better-paid positions, especially in emerging sectors of the economy with access to hard currency.

It has also been proven that, except for rare exceptions, school reinforces sexist ideas and behavior that legitimize gender inequity.  Women who act in an independent manner in the public environment often reproduce relations of subordination in the private environment and have considerably less free time than men.

Although the Cuban constitution guarantees equality between women and men, the reality is much more complex. Likewise, access is not the same for blacks and whites, residents of rural areas and those in Havana, or for internal migrants in a big city and native residents.

“It’s more difficult to pursue certain studies in regions of the country that are far away from the urban centers, especially when you live in a family with economic problems and working is crucial, or when you grow up under marginal conditions,” commented Sonia Valdes, a 32-year-old engineer.

“We are a black family.  Before the Revolution I lived in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana, where we still live today.  Marginality reproduces itself, and it’s not always easy to break out of it,” assured Valdes, the only one of four siblings to graduate from a university.

The mother of an adolescent daughter who lives in a dorm at one of the pre-university schools that the government has set up in rural areas, Valdes isn’t sure what would be better for her daughter.  “Should she continue studying far from her family, far from this environment, or be here, under my influence and with all the cultural opportunities that the city offers?” she wondered.

Norma Vasallo, the head of the Women’s Department of the University of Havana, also believes that education is only a starting point.  “It must provide the tools for the development of thinking that allows people to be critical of their situation and themselves,” she told IPS.

“It’s not only about learning how to read, write, add, multiply and bring home knowledge of certain basic subjects.  The simple fact of going to the university doesn’t automatically lead to changes in one’s attitudes about daily life, although it can contribute to them.

“One needs a critical knowledge of the situation to be able to transform it, not only among women but among men as well.  Sometimes women aren’t even aware that they’re being discriminated against when they’re not considered for a job promotion or even a work-related trip,” she added.

Havana Times translation of IPS original in Spanish



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