Gender Equality in Cuba: Is it Real?

By Sheyla Hirshon

Emilia Fernández. Photo: Jean Karotkin

HAVANA TIMES — The non-governmental Center for Democracy in the Americas recently recently released a fascinating and highly readable study of gender relations in Cuba titled Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women building Cuba’s Future.

The document, the third installment of a series on 21st Century Cuba, highlights “the progress Cuban women have made towards gender equality since the 1950s and examines whether that progress can be sustained into the future.”[1]  It accomplishes its goal in five, concise, non-judgmental and well- documented chapters, enriched by personal profiles of some remarkably perceptive Cuban women.

The book neatly sidesteps the polemics of left and right but raises a provocative question: when women’s opportunities and power are expanded as a concession to justice from the men in power, will their situation really change?

So much progress, and yet…

The initial profile of Emilia Fernández, an Afro-Cuban woman, illustrates some of the paradoxes for Cuban women.

Emilia has traveled abroad, speaks three languages, holds several degrees and works at a center for ocular health that serves international patients. She recognizes that the Cuban revolution gave her opportunities infinitely beyond those of her mother and grandmother.

Still, her description of a woman’s day in Cuba tastes of gritty reality: “You get up and cook breakfast, you take precarious public transportation, and you arrive exhausted to work.  At the workplace you encounter stress. And then, you receive a salary that does not resolve your needs.  How can this not have health repercussions?”[2]

As many in her generation, Emilia was formed by revolutionary values and what she calls “the Cuban dream: “[The dream] means that I can still fight, that it’s my place.  I have worked since I was a child to make Cuba better.  The dream is part of me.”[3]   And yet, like many of the profiled women in the book, she worries that the newer generations may have lost that hope and that dream.

This perspective forms the heart of the book: women have advanced enormously in many areas, and yet their daily lives are filled with difficulties, frustrations and deprivations.  At the same time, their personal relations with men seem to exacerbate these stressors rather than help cope with them.

Impact of the Revolution remains impressive

In a few short pages, the authors offer a staccato burst of facts and figures to remind us of the situation for Cuban women in the fifties: a general  life expectancy of 59.4 years, an infant mortality rate of 8%, 23% illiteracy among women, 71% under-educated, and the vast majority with no access to employment other than as domestic servants, in short a dearth of rights, opportunities and satisfaction of basic needs weighing most heavily on women, on rural women and on Afro-Cuban women

We are then reminded of the enormous gains that Cuban revolution made and has maintained in women’s rights and opportunities.  Fifty-four years later, these gains still situate Cuba at the top of the list among developing countries for the well-being of mothers and children, and in the top 20 nations for its progress relative towards the Millennium Development goals. Despite all the problems, these achievements are nothing short of spectacular.

As documented in the book, these advances were the result of deliberate policies designed by Party leadership.  Fidel Castro’s first Manifesto written in Mexico committed the revolution to the creation of “a legal framework for the advancement of girls and women, connecting them to social services, education and health and to the world of work.”[4]

It then fell to the Federation of Cuban Women under Vilma Espín to make these real.  The litany of gains include health, education, marriage rights, reproductive rights, rights to own land, even a growing recognition of the rights of gays and lesbians – gains that so many other women in so many other countries are still fighting for.  It’s good to be reminded of them, and of how they have reverberated in the lives of ordinary Cubans.

The “gender paradox” colors women’s lives

“Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Frederick Douglass said in 1857 “It never did and it never will.”  As the book goes on to illustrate, Cuba’s quantum leaps in opportunities and legal guarantees were not backed by a grassroots demand from women for equal rights in the home and workplace. As María Ileana Faguaga another of the profiled women sums up: “There is a group of … Cuban feminists who recognize that in these 50 years, women have not won space; we have been granted spaces.”[5]

This has led to the so-called “gender paradox.”  “Women still bear the burden for performing the majority of household and care-giving responsibilities in addition to working outside the home. ..many women live in urban and rural households with three generations and have a ‘double shift’: going to work while also attending children, grandchildren and in-laws at home and assuming overall administration of the household.”[6].

As the Special Period imposed its hardships on Cubans in general, these hardships fell with particular force upon women and women of color.  Domestic violence has never been addressed as a separate and particular kind of violence. And, in the political arena, only a few women have ever been admitted to the circles of power, and these only to the extent that their voices echoed the decisions of the male leadership.

Women’s future in the changing economics

The last chapters discuss the new economic reforms and their possible impact on women.  On the one hand, many of the state jobs being eliminated are women’s jobs, while on the other a large number of the vocations approved for self-employment are traditionally performed by men.  Hence, while the huge gains in health and educational levels have left women well positioned to assume a role in rebuilding the Cuban economy, there is still a troubling gap in their ability to realize that potential.  “The government and the revolution have given women every chance and opportunity…However, that’s not reflected in higher positions.  Why? Because we still believe that we have to look after everything at home.”[7]

The book’s authors see hope in the new entrepreneurial opportunities, but back this with a strong case for training programs and international partnerships as the current generation of Cubans have received no preparation for this role.

There remains the troubling question of the new generation: “While the framework for progress remains in place, the question is whether it can be mobilized – quickly enough or broadly enough – to capture the interest of the next generations of Cuba’s people.”[8]

As a reader of Havana Times with a strong interest in the topic, I found this small book a useful and enriching guide.  The authors managed that very difficult task of presenting us with a convincing look into the realities of women’s lives and a framework for understanding the background to those realities without judging or prescribing. The questions the book raises are all-too-relevant.

More than just an academic study, the book is permeated with the authors’ obvious affection and admiration for Cuban women and their struggles.

The stunning portrait of Emilia Fernández on the cover states this eloquently, as do Sarah Stephens’ final words under Acknowledgements:

My last word is for the women of Cuba.  Your story will resonate loud and clear with women living everywhere….Even more, we want what you told us to be heard and understood by policy makers in the White House, State Department and Congress…Their judgments could only be improved by understanding what so many of them have been missing for all these years: your humanity.”[9]
Center for Democracy in the Americas is a non-governmental Washington-based organization whose stated goal is to ”replace the existing policy of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation with a policy that will permit travel to Cuba for all Americans, promote diplomatic engagement, and ultimately normalize relations between the United States and Cuba.”  The book is also available on the internet in English at , and in Spanish.


[1] Center for Democracy in the Americas,  Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women in Building Cuba’s Future, (CDA, 2013)  p. 3

[2] CDA, Women’s Work, p. 14

[3] CDA, Women’s Work, p. 14

[4] Movimiento Revolucionario 26 de Julio, Manifiesto No1 Del 26 de Julio, Cuba, 1955,, as quoted in CDA, Women’s Work, p.21

[5] CDA, Women’s Work, p. 51

[6] CDA, Women’s Work, p. 45

[7] María del Carmen Varoso González, member of the national assembly as quoted in CDA, Women’s Work, p. 68

[8] CDA, Women’s Work, p. 69

[9] CDA, Women’s Work, p. 76

One thought on “Gender Equality in Cuba: Is it Real?

  • As relatively good as things are for Cuban women it is telling that there is no acknowledgement of violence against women as a distinct issue. Nor is the word patriarchy ever mentioned. Consequently further progress for women is impossible in the absence of an authentic women’s movement in Cuba and the liklihood of a regression in the status of women is all too great given the current move towards the Chinese economic model.

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