Women and Covid in Cuba: Building Resilience

By IPS Cuba

Hilda with her two grandchildren who are in studying via TV-classes in the living room of their home in Havana. Foto: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

HAVANA TIMES – While COVID-19 has hit the population particularly hard, its tracks continue to be deeper on women, who continue to take on domestic chores in many homes because the patriarchal order persists. IPS Cuba’s editorial team has approached this issue by talking to five Cuban women about their experiences and their thoughts.

How has Coronavirus affected women’s everyday lives in Cuba, bearing in mind that the burden of domestic chores and care responsibilities continue to fall on them, because of the patriarchal order persists?

Betty Hernandez Becerra

It’s inevitable not to think negatively when we talk about COVID-19. This doesn’t deny the existence of possible positive interpretations such as a greater control of one’s time, not having to respond to working hours established by the patriarchy such as long working days that affect women’s rhythms of living, greater family unity, reassessing what’s truly important in order to live, a greater awareness about the role we play as another species in Nature, but this view isn’t in popular consciousness when we spontaneously think about words, feelings and experiences linked to the pandemic.

I admit that in the basic struggle to fight against this virus and the proposal to stay at home, women are overburdened, while they try to successfully work (responding to the patriarchal system of power’s demands), and to do the following at the same time:

        Work remotely

        Follow online classes with their children

        Keep the house clean

        Look after children and the elderly

        Get creative in the kitchen so they can feed everyone in the house

        Be on top of what’s needed at home and the lines that must be waited in in order to buy

        Neglect their physical and emotional wellbeing

In spite of the rights Cuban women have won, we still have very few safeguards, are demanded to do so much, even we demand this of ourselves, and we have very little personal space. These elements aren’t always portrayed in a critical light and, on the contrary, reinforce culturally-assigned gender stereotypes during the pandemic, and have kept us for millennia looking at a photograph of a woman as the care giver, the educator, the domestic, submissive, good-natured, accommodating woman who gives herself to others.

This idea hasn’t really changed despite women’s incorporation into public life, a life that has been designed from patriarchal impositions, which men also respond to uncritically.

Co-living, for a long period of time, is also associated with staying at home, with different family members who don’t always get on well, and now there’s no escape because we’re all at home. I’m not even thinking about co-living with different family members in the same house, who have different interests and ideas about life: daughters-in-law, mothers-in-law, children of different generations, to the development of multiple forms of direct and indirect violence with the resulting psychological and physical violence within the couple, with their children, the elderly and even pets.

The invisibility of gender-based violence and the lack of recognition of its indirect forms leads to an acceptance of “more subtle” attitudes as being normal and even as necessary for everyday life to work. The subordination of one gender and gender-based violence is naturalized and differentiated in public and private environments in terms of the spaces that have been socially assigned to men and women respectively.

Unfortunately, it isn’t a minority of people who think that there isn’t any violence if there hasn’t been any physical harm, and those who think smacking children forms part of the education process.

Building resilience amidst shortages and problems has been a challenge for women. What are the main effects on women’s health and physical and emotional stability when they face crisis situations?

Yuliet Cruz

The overlap of a multitude of roles in time and space, which are very demanding and have been taken on by women already, are already quite stressful conditions are they are exhausting. If this happens within this context – it’s already been over a year now – marked by uncertainty, fear, both the latent and real fear of getting sick, accepting the consequences of becoming infected and if this is also happening in limited material conditions, where basic needs such as food and personal hygiene aren’t being met, and is hard work, requires financial resources, time, then we are talking about difficult, stressful lives for all of these people, but especially for women who bear the brunt of care responsibilities for others.

The feeling of constant exhaustion, sadness, depression, frustration at the fact they have to take on all of these roles with restrictions and, even the difficulty of meeting personal needs because they have very little time and not very much energy available for rest, self-care, leisure, make this a very difficult landscape.

During this stage of the pandemic, as well as the long-awaited “new normality” phase, health institutions will need to offer enough quality mental health services in order to make up for the needs that have been created along the way and which have inevitably emerged as a result of this health crisis. Mental and physical health problems can already be seen, which will be an extra challenge.

Another issue, that is just as important, is violence against women and girls, where they now have to spend more time at home co-living with their aggressors, and the restrictions that exist in order to activate support networks due to physical distancing measures, and this is a significant problem that many women are having to deal with, and it will require proper assistance.

The fact remains that some efforts have been underway during this time to offer online services that provide psychological support to victims of domestic abuse; nevertheless, strategies that transcend the virtual world will need to be implemented, so they can follow women’s realities more closely.

Social media has been an ally in many resilience experiences and initiatives led by women during the pandemic. How do you think they can become more visible, more effective and better used?

Arlen Martinez

I personally don’t feel comfortable with this kind of support. I know that it works for a lot of people and it has helped them to survive these pandemic times. I’m happy that these initiatives have been found and have helped people, especially via WhatsApp groups; however, I personally don’t feel comfortable sharing my little torments with strangers. I prefer to look for support from my close friends, many of whom are living similar situations to my own.

That doesn’t ignore the role that many of these experiences have played in the current context, as I know they have been a fundamental pillar for many families, and that key aspects have improved thanks to them, such as co-living at home or communication, while they have managed to learn about proper stimuli to encourage their children’s development.

Of course, these experiences could gain better visibility with more newspaper reports that recognize and promote them, especially in the national and provincial press that reach the masses. Something has been done, but it is never enough.

Lots of the time, economic models don’t measure the productive work women do at home and decisions are made that threaten efforts to ensure that they have full access to certain services that could improve their living conditions and quality of life. In the current situation imposed by the pandemic, do you think that changing these parameters is something that needs to be done, and why?

Betty Hernandez Becerra

Of course, it’s needed, with the economic reforms process we can see that men benefit in the short-term, while women must wait for improvements to laws about work, childcare and the elderly, infrastructure services (water, electricity, gas), home support services, transport, technology and communications, just to name a few.

The Program for Women’s Advancement has now emerged, and it is a chance to not only contribute to changing this reality if it moves away from the institutional framework and begins a dialogue with civil society so that everyone is able to play their part in building a better future for Cuba, including women and it needs to go beyond the mere description of how many of us there are and to focus on relationships of power that materialize in public spaces and the lack of recognition housework has as a job that sustains the capitalist system and its oppression.

On paper, Cuban politics show intentions for social equity and justice, but this intention needs to materialize with actions, which need to be established and I also believe that they must go beyond the training that is repeatedly mentioned in the Program, which I think is needed but not enough. However, if we are stuck on training, picking up on the value of education to promote any change, then we just need to ask ourselves what kind of training we need, and based on which pedagogical concepts. Our intentions to change can only become concrete with a liberating and sustainable pedagogy, and not from a pedagogy that replicates oppression and discrimination.

What lessons has COVID-19 taught you personally in the sense of organizing your life, your work, the way you participate and create change at home and in the community?

Betty Hernandez Becerra

There have been many lessons, and it’d be difficult to organize them all here because they are charged with experiences that have implied a burden, but also stem from a need to reorganize family life, involving everyone, beyond their gender and age. To enjoy doing things, separating myself from Time and allowing myself to be more in sync with Nature, being absent on Monday or Friday or whether it’s at 8 AM or 3 PM. It enables me to do what I need to in a good mood, that needs order but also allows for the disorder needed to laugh, share, be together and be aware of our actions.

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