By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA TIMES, May 25 (IPS) – Mercedes Toyo has begun smiling again, but only after years of crying and enduring violence, though painful memories continue to haunt her. “Now I’m falling in love with a 50-year-old man who tells me that I’m very withdrawn, that I don’t pay much attention to him,” she explained in the living room of her home.
Her story is no different from those of other women who have been battered by their partners. The Cuban Constitution and numerous laws assure women’s equality and the protection of the family, but the abuse that occurs in the intimacy of the home doesn’t always escape the fear and prejudice, nor is it reported to the authorities or tabulated in statistics.
“I never thought about going to the police; it would have been worse. Plus, nobody ever does that, everything remained within the family,” said a 55-year-old professional, who also went through that painful experience in her first marriage.
Ten years earlier, Toyo did in fact go to the authorities when she felt that her husband was going to kill her.
“I began to defend myself and acted like a wild animal. One day he had slapped me, but the police officers only laughed about it. They told me, “You can accuse him, but he can accuse you too, without them ever realizing that he (the husband) was going to attack me with a machete. The police need to be more concerned and really investigate these cases,” she stressed.
Hotlines and Shelters
Accompanied by her sisters, Beatriz and Esperanza, Mercedes Toyo suggests that a hotline – such as the ones set up in Cuba for cases of drug addiction and AIDS – would help victims of domestic violence. “And that in police stations there should be departments with personnel specialized in these situations,” added Esperanza Toyo.
The three women agreed that it would also be desirable to have women’s shelters similar to those in other countries, where abused women, along with their children, could seek refuge in crisis situations. However, they recognized that any initiative aimed at creating such type of housing would conclude before starting, given the critical housing shortage on the island.
Cuban sociologist and academic Clotilde Proveyer acknowledged that alcohol and drug abuse, as well as situations of economic crisis, become “catalysts” to violent behavior. “But the real cause of this social problem has to do with relationships of power and control,” she said.
“Women have been a social group subordinate to male power, and there lies the most important reason behind gender violence: the use of violence as a mechanism of patriarchal control,” notes Proveyer. For that reason, educational paths are considered indispensable in dismantling such behavior.
Without official statistical reports, it is not easy to establish an estimate of the magnitude of the problem in Cuba. “I’d say that it’s not as large as some people think or as small as we would want,” assured lawyer Yamila Gonzalez Ferrer, who has a masters in sexuality and is the secretary of the national board of the Cuban Jurists Association.
From the academic world, Proveyer offered some revealing data from a report presented at the Casa de las Americas cultural institution, which in February 2008 organized the international colloquy “Violence and Counter-violence in the Culture of Latin American and Caribbean Women.”
She said that more than 70 percent of the women murdered in Cuba had had prior relationships with their murderers. The sociologist added that, “Not appearing as separate figures, many gender crimes are lumped into general crime categories.”
“The result,” Proveyer said, “is that they are made invisible.”
She further notes that in murders of women at the hands of males, 50 percent of the killers are their husbands and 60 percent of the women who die as a result of some situation connected to a relationship, almost always with a former husband. Fifty-two percent of these deaths occur in the victim’s home.
The Legal Environment
Gonzalez Ferrer is also a member, like Proveyer, of the Working Support Group for the Prevention and Treatment of Intra-family Violence, created in September 1997 to merge the “objectives and tasks” of the various institutions involved with this issue.
She believes what is important is greater visibility on the issue. “We are seeing a little more, precisely because people are working for it to be exposed,” she said.
It has been a constant concern of the non-governmental Federation of Cuban Women, she added. That organization, created at the beginning of the Cuban Revolution (1959), coordinates the work of a the group addressing intra-familiar violence, which includes several ministries, the National Center for Sexual Education, the University of Havana, the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television, and the Supreme Court, among others.
The team is working on a Family Code reform initiative and on improving the Criminal Code, which was modified between 1997 and 1999 to introduce crimes such sexual offenses including harassment. The team is currently working to eliminate all references in the Code that could be interpreted as discrimination due to one’s sexual orientation.
Also included as one of the aggravating circumstances “is being a spouse and the relationship between the offender and the victim.”
Gonzalez said the Working Support Group thinks it is unnecessary “at this time” to have a law against intra-family violence but, on the other hand, has decided to continue working to improve the legislation in place and to accentuate the training of policemen, judges, doctors, professors and other personnel involved in addressing this problem.
“By themselves, the laws don’t solve anything. If they are not applied properly, if they don’t have practical effects, they don’t serve anything,” said Gonzalez. “For that reason, we insist on the training personnel who are involved with these issues, which not only impact on women, but on all the members of the family, and also serves to sensitize society,” she said.
Likewise, academic studies conclude that because of their social development, Cuban women react “more actively” in the face of gender violence than those in other countries, although there is still ignorance, especially concerning legal matters.
Those sources warn that the public doesn’t know about changes in the legislation, those aimed at prevention and confronting the problem. “A woman should not allow the man to lift his hand to her, but if she knows her rights and the law, it’s better still,” commented Beatriz Toyo, the older sister, in a 20-year marriage that she describes as happy, although with its “ups and downs.”
Translation by Havana Times