The Empowerment of Cuban Women

Fernando Ravsberg*

More than half of Cuba’s healthcare workers are women, many of whom are working in internationalist missions abroad.

HAVANA TIMES — According to the latest census, nearly half of Cuba’s heads of households are women. Women are the heads of families in 44.9 % of the country’s households, something which represents a significant development when we recall that, in 1981, only 30 % of them occupied this position.

There are many factors behind the empowerment of Cuban women, but one of the most important is their massive incorporation into the workforce and higher education – 66 percent of Cuba’s professionals and experts are female, as are 50 % of the country’s healthcare workers. This gives women the possibility of supporting their children as men can. In addition, Cuban women earn the same salaries men do, something which isn’t very common around the world.

Cuba’s high divorce rate also contributes to the central role women play in the household today. A legal separation is a very quick and easy process in Cuba. To immediately put an end to a marriage, it suffices for one of the spouses to wish it. “That is how it ought to be, because, if I don’t want to continue to be married to my partner, no one can force me to,” says Loannia Marimon, a 32-year-old Cuban divorcee. “Isn’t that the way it is everywhere?” asked 33-year-old Manuel Toledo, somewhat surprised.

Coral Hidalgo manufactures household products at an agricultural and livestock cooperative. She is the main breadwinner at home.

“You’re living in a matriarchal society. Even before the creation of the Cuban Women’s Federation, women were in charge – discretely, under the table, but still in charge,” Margarita Alarcon, a worker at an embassy, tells me. “If you add to this that now Cuban women have a good education and that some are now the ones bringing home the real cash, then you start to get the picture.” She adds that “deep down, Cuban men love to be bossed around by mom.”

The participation of Cuban women in politics is notable. A total of 48 percent of the country’s deputies are women, or so Maria de los Angeles Florez, Cuban Ambassador before UNESCO, tells us. Today, Cuba is even prioritizing the appointment of female public officials. The truth of the matter, however, is that this trend predates the revolution.

According to Cuban intellectual Graciela Pogolotti, some of these rights “were earned through their participation in the armed struggle against Gerardo Machado’s dictatorship.” This helps explain why, well before Cuban woman fought in the Sierra Maestra and as members of clandestine urban cells, abortion and divorce were recognized rights on the island.

The Law

Current Cuban legislation is particularly protective of mothers: the children of working and single mothers are prioritized in State kindergartens. Women enjoy a 6-month, fully-paid maternity leave (which can be extended an additional 6 months, at 60% of their salaries). This leave can be granted the mother or the father. No Cuban woman can be fired because of pregnancy or lose their position following her maternity leave.

Some 66 % of Cuba’s professionals and vocational institute graduates are women.

The crime of sexual harassment, which includes stalking, has been introduced into Cuba’s penal code, and being the victim’s spouse has become an aggravating circumstance in these cases. That said, domestic violence continues to be a problem on the island: in 1999, 2,000 women were reported injured and 344 raped. Hundreds of homes operated by the Cuban Women’s Federation have been opened to process reports of abuse, as some police officers continue to regard such incidents as problems as private family issues.

Prostitution isn’t punishable by law, but there are very severe laws applied to those who exploit the trade through procurement – and human trade can be punished with up to 30 years in prison. Acting as an intermediary, facilitating the transportation of or renting out a house to solicitors and prostitutes can lead to prison sentences and the confiscation of vehicles and homes. There are especially harsh laws for child prostitution (several foreigners are serving prison sentences for sleeping with 13 and 14-year-old girls.

The sex life of Cuban women begins earlier, ends later and is more open than that of other women in the region. Relations begin at adolescence and people continue to become couples at old people’s homes. Cuba has the highest divorce rate in all of Latin America and a 50-year-old woman can have three divorces under her belt, without feeling traumatized because of this. This has to do with all of the above and the predominance of Santeria, a religion in which sex does not have the sinful connotations it does under Catholicism.
(*) Visit Fernando Ravsberg’s blog.

5 thoughts on “The Empowerment of Cuban Women

  • “Deep down, Cuban men love to be bossed around by mom.” Margarita Alarcon Thanks for your fascinating–and amusing–report, Fernando. Once again, the chorus of nay-sayers can only sing dirges. Does the C.I.A., N.S.A. or whatever, pay them by the word? Or is their venom against the Revolution based on some past experience, such as the siezure of their property in the 1960’s. Who knows? Who cares?! In any event, I’ll have a little more time to comment @ HT now, as I am through with my teaching assignments for another year. I have successfully subverted another cohort of the upcoming generation!

  • How about the growing numbers of prostitutes in Cuba? Is that not also another one of the Revolution’s proud achievements and an indication of the Cuban women’s economic independence and sexual liberation?

    There may well be harsh laws for child prostitution, but are these laws ever enforced? Does Fernando have any statistics on this? The Canadian tourist, James McTurk, was recently convicted in a Canadian court on charges of child sex tourism and possession of child pornography. His case was revealed in a shocking investigative report by reporters from the Toronto Star and the Miami Herald. Significant in his case was the fact that McTurk had travelled to Cuba several times over the several years during which he carried out his sick crimes against Cuban children, but never once was he questioned nor arrested by the Cuban police. It stretches credulity to imagine the Cuban police, normally quite efficient and thorough in keeping watch over citizens and tourists alike, were completely unaware of this man’s activities. McTurk was only caught when Canadian border police examined his laptop and found incriminating photographs on the hard drive.

    Stories like this put the lie to the propaganda claim that Cuban women are emancipated and empowered.

  • The conclusions Mr. Ravsbergs wants to draw from mere statistics forget the reality on the street. Cuban society is rife with machismo and racism.

    A black women is at the bottom of the pile.

    Very few women are in true leadership positions.

    The breakdown of families – ironically seen in general as a form of repression of women – combined with overall poverty has also made women more dependent on men and thereby more vulnerable

  • It is ironic that the former Soviet Union also claimed to have empowered women and likewise justified themselves with statistics based on women’s participation in the workforce and the Duma. Yet, after the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc, it is the very same ’empowered’ women who are the least likely to wax nostalgic about the former socialist bloc when compared to men and most likely to seek the political and social freedoms most associated with the West and capitalism. It would seem that despite the social advances women have made under the Castro tyranny, the real freedom most important to women has nothing to do with their gender and everything to do with their humanity.

  • I fail to see how having the highest divorce and abortion rates in Latin America are positive social indicators for Cuban women. The failure to maintain long term relationships within which to raise children has a well demonstrated association with higher rates of youth crime, drug use, child abuse, and lower rates of education. The high abortion rate in Cuba is evidence that Cuban women have little hope for the future and consider it a waste of time & effort to raise children in Cuba. Even with the generous parental leave available, many would be parents still don’t want to have children.

    As a consequence of these “empowerments”, the Cuban population is aging, shrinking and dying. If that is success, I would hate to see failure!

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