The Price Cuban Women Pay in Caring for Others

Zoraida Gomez and her husband Jorge Luis Sobrino, along with their 8-year-old son who has cerebral palsy in their home in Boyeros, Havana.  The mother has recently returned to her work after an 8-year abasence taking care of her son.  In Cuba, like in the mayority of countries, care giving falls on women.  Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet Gonzalez  (IPS-Cuba)

HAVANA TIMES – Cuban woman Zoraida Gomez only went back to work outside of the home five months ago. She is now working as a secretary at a polyclinic in the Boyeros municipality in Havana. “I was at home looking after my child for eight years,” she told IPS.

Her youngest son, who is now 8 years old, was born premature and has cerebral palsy, as well as other diseases. “We spent two months at the hospital when he was born. His development was slow, in fact he still doesn’t walk or feel anything, but he has learned to talk over time,” the mother explained.

Gomez’s story reflects the complex situation that many caring for others experience in Cuba, which is beginning to come to light thanks to some data available today. Women are the ones who normally take on this care in the Caribbean island, like elsewhere in the world, and they normally do this without receiving any kind of remuneration.

“Care givers are invisible and aren’t taken into account… I once asked for psychological help because I was very depressed, but I had to ask for it on my own, not because we receive comprehensive care,” this woman gave as an example, who has had to move to four different cities along with her husband in order to give their son the rehabilitation therapy he needs.

“As soon as we were recommended a specialized rehabilitation center, we went,” Gomez said, who was born in Jaguey Grande, a municipality in the western Matanzas province. The family has lived in Cardenas (Matanzas), Aguada and Cienfuegos (in the central Cienfuegos province), until they finally moved to Havana in 2018.

“The Solidaridad con Panama special needs school accepted my son into the 2018/2019 academic year. We didn’t want to leave him at a boarding school and so we had to move to the capital… we have received support in moving, we were loaned an apartment and we have rarely ever had to rent somewhere,” she continued.

Unable to hold back her tears at times, which she quickly wipes away, she shared that “it has been very hard [for her]… I have always worked, ever since I was very young, even after my eldest son was born, who is now 19 years old.” She believes that public support for care is insufficient and not varied enough to respond to the different needs of each family.

The burden of care falls upon the female population, almost always without any kind of remuneration and without being identified and monetized, and is one of the forms of gender discrimination which has been highlighted within the scope of International Women’s Day, on March 8th, which has launched the “Generation Equality” campaign, this year.

In Cuba, high costs of care for children, the sick and elderly, which women normally take on, influence economic and social participation indices of women, even though these are high in the country, as well as their quality of life.

A woman pushes a wheelchair with a family member she takes care of in Playa, Havana.   Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

In fact, “insufficient care services”, as well as teenage pregnancy and the persistence of traditional gender stereotypes are some of the main obstacles identified by Cuban gender equality authorities, who are committed to tackling these as part of a Latin America agenda.

These three points form part of Cuba’s commitments as outlined in the National Progress Report on the Montevideo Strategy to Implement the Regional Gender Equality Agenda within the scope of the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, which has been available online since November 2019.

While the socialist government continues to provide universal healthcare and education, budgets for care have been cut due to the economic crisis that has been ongoing since 1991 and they are no longer in keeping with the country’s current needs, with the most aged population in Latin America after Uruguay.

“There isn’t a specific care policy in Cuba,” sociologist Magela Romero explained to IPS, about a subject that is gaining more publicity in national media since last year, when different academic and research centers began collaborative efforts to lay the foundations for a public policy and even creating a National Care System.

“For example, some of the employment policies could include care giving so as to foster joint responsibility, in order to increase women’s participation in public life and men’s participation in family life,” Romero told IPS.

In order to do this, the expert proposes “reflecting upon good practices that already exist in Cuba to create new strategies which boost “defamiliarization” and “de-womanizing” care giving”, in a society where 20.1% of the total 11.2 million inhabitants on the island, are over sixty.

Thanks to collaborative efforts between 10 Cuban institutions and international cooperation organizations, the first National Study Workshop about Care in Cuba was held in February, which compiled results and methodologies in order to map the State of this field and to identify new investigations.

Furthermore, the Family Study Group, from the state-run Psychological and Sociological Research Center, in Havana, presented a program in December 2019, to understand care from a family perspective and to improve the State’s response, based on care provider’s opinions.

Changes needed range from economic, establishing state-private sector ties to eradicate traditional gender stereotypes.

According to the National Survey of Population Ageing, which was carried out in 2017 and published in January this year, 37.4% of people aged 50+ who were interviewed and had previously worked said they had stopped working because of another reason other than retirement.

A group of elderly, pose at one of the State run Casa de los Abuelos homes in the city of Cienfuegos. However, there is little capacity and taking care of the elderly almost always falls on the women of the family.   Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Out of that group, 25.2% were women and 5.5% were men, meaning that they gave up their jobs in order to care for others, according to the study which gives us a representative sample of the population in this age group in the country’s 15 provinces and the special municipality of Isla de la Juventud.

“Just over 57% of the population aged 50+ prefer to be cared for by a woman if they need care; 35% said that they didn’t care if it was a man or a woman and just over 5% declared they would prefer to be cared for by a man,” the study stated.

While the National Survey for Gender Equality (2016) revealed that women aged between 15-74 years old, dedicate 36 hours to unpaid domestic and care work every week, which was 14 hours more per week than their male counterparts. Out of these, almost nine hours were dedicated to caring for children, the sick and dependents.

“I’m anxious, weak and am depressed… it’s really affected my mental health because physically I can still clean, wash…,” retired Caridad Acosta told IPS, who has taken on the care of sick relatives and babies, in a rural neighborhood in Mayabeque, a province that neighbors Havana.

“I have taken care of my father, my aunts… everyone who gets sick. My husband had an ischemic stroke and lived for six more years, and was in a coma for a month just before he passed away. I spent five years of that time dividing my time between my husband and my job in a workers’ canteen,” Acosta said, who is now taking care of her mother full-time.

“Here, the Casa del Abuelo (daycare centers for the elderly) is very far away and residences don’t have proper conditions, plus the family sacrifices itself to keep them at home normally… although this has gradually been changing among young people,” she said.

There are private services, but these are far too expensive for most families, which range from 10 USD per month to up to 150 USD for childcare before starting school. In the case of the elderly, prices range from 50 to 300 USD per month. [Cubans wages average less than $30 per month]. And churches of different faiths also contribute with some care givers, nursing homes and daycare centers.


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