PATRICIA GROGG interviews SUSAN MCDADE the UN Representative in Cuba
HAVANA TIMES, March 28 (IPS) – Preceded only by men in the position of resident coordinator of the United Nations system in Cuba, Canadian Susan McDade considers herself “lucky.” She was assigned to this country, which though known for its machismo guarantees women’s rights in its constitution and culture.
Since February 2006, McDade has figured among the nine women who occupy the highest representative posts of both the United Nations Organization (UN) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Latin America and the Caribbean. Up until a few years ago such functions were held exclusively by men.
“As an international organization, the UN has been promoting greater gender parity in all positions, but it’s a fact that there are fewer women in the highest positions. Latin America was one of the regions with the greatest disparities in this sense, although the situation has begun to change,” she said in an interview with IPS.
McDade added that a decisive role in this change has been played by UNDP Regional Director Rebeca Grynspan, a former vice-president of Costa Rica, who “has very strongly promoted” the advancement of women into the position of coordinators in Latin American countries.
How has it been working over these last three years in a country known for its machismo?
SUSAN MCDADE: In my personal case, I believe that I was very lucky to be assigned to a country where woman’s rights are guaranteed under the constitution. However, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been experiences where I’ve been marginalized for being a woman.
On occasion, when having to negotiate or to make tough decisions, where a man would be seen as being a strong negotiator, a woman is viewed as being difficult, or a witch.
It has been an effort to make people understand that decision-making doesn’t have to do with one’s gender, but with the character of the position. In Cuba, women are still expected to be gentler, more patient, and demure; however, that is a cultural problem that has nothing to do with the positions they hold.
I would say the challenge in Cuba is not so much being a woman as it is being younger than some people I have to manage. That also happened to me in China, where I worked in a senior position. In addition, I have young children, and it has taken effort to achieve the proper balance between my family commitments and my work life. But that happens in any country.
What challenges and obstacles have you faced in Cuba in attempting to meet the UN’s third Millennium Development Objective (MDO), which aims to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment?
In terms of women’s participation in the formal sector, it’s very high. This includes university degree programs in which the female student body is much larger than the male. However, like in other countries, there is no correspondence with managerial positions, or in the highest offices, where their representation is less than men.
In political processes, the National Assembly (parliament) has one of the highest rates of female representation in the world. Nevertheless, there is not equity in non-remunerated activities. While women are part of the country’s work force, they are also primarily responsible for taking care of their home’s and their children. Men do not participate equally in these tasks.
What’s the challenge then?
One of the challenges facing Cuban women is the inadequate availability of services that would allow them to be fully incorporated into work life. A growing phenomenon in this country is that women not only have to take care of children, but also the elderly.
Just as there are not enough daycare centers, nor are there a sufficient number of senior care facilities that offer healthy and appropriate alternatives for older adults, and that’s a big challenge that women face.
Does the UN system have any programs related to gender violence?
That’s an area which we are working on with the authorities here, but we don’t expect to have a great role profile in this. What’s important to keep in mind is that Cuba is no more or no less jeopardized by that issue than other countries of Latin America. It’s a phenomenon that exists across the Caribbean and Central America, and it’s very difficult to confront anywhere.
Why is it a difficult problem; what are the greatest difficulties in facing it?
One of the biggest difficulties is in understanding the dimension and nature of the phenomenon. Secondly, you have to know what the points of entry for confronting the phenomenon are. And thirdly, we need to find out how to finance the services needed by battered women, children and men. In addition, we have to promote the public’s education as to the risks and rights in relation to this issue.
In the case of Cuba, there is no domestic abuse telephone hotline, nor are there shelters for people who have been physically abused.
Did the serious damage caused by the hurricanes that hit Cuba last year have an impact on the Millennium Development Goals?
One of the MDGs is environmental sustainability, and Cuba is continuing to work on that. The hurricanes caused damage to its forests and to the management of its water basins.
As for the first objective (the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger), we have no evidence that hunger has increased, although the agricultural system experienced difficulties that persist to a certain extent.
The delivery of land in usufruct; the opening of stores with farm tools, supplies and fertilizers; and discussions around offering credit to farmers, have created very important possibilities for promoting food security.
It’s still too early to know what the outcomes will be, but I believe there are areas in which the impact of the hurricanes made it necessary to face challenges that previously existed.
Did those disasters reduce many families to poverty?
The challenge here is in measuring poverty. If one uses an indicator based only on income, certainly those farmers who lost their crops saw their incomes decrease.
However, the UN and particularly the UNDP have argued for many years that one cannot measure poverty only by income, since it’s something much more complex; it has to do with access to opportunities to public health and educational services, among others.
There’s no evidence that the hurricanes have structurally diminished people’s access to the systems of healthcare and education. Nor have we seen affects on the weight of children under five or on average life expectancy.
The impact of the hurricanes was tremendous, but structurally they did not change the profile of the quality of life in Cuba in terms of long-term measurements.
How is the impact of this type of disaster on women evaluated?
At the regional level, we know that female-headed families and young children are usually the most vulnerable to the impact of these disasters. They also take much longer in rebuilding their houses, since they lack a man who could contribute to the work.
In shelters where women and children are evacuated, there are frequently acts of violence committed against them. Unfortunately, these are the moments with the most victimization.
And in the specific case of Cuba…?
What I want to highlight as good -very good- in the case of Cuba is that, different from other countries, thanks to its system of prevention and mitigation of disasters there were no women who gave birth under precarious conditions. This is because pregnant women are evacuated to appropriate centers in advance.
There were annoyances and human suffering, but in terms of risks to lives, we have no evidence of greater vulnerability in the case of women.
What we know is that women can be more vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases in the phase following the impact of a hurricane. This is due to the abnormal situation in which access to condoms is more difficult, and there are less hygienic conditions.
In addition, evacuation shelters sometimes lack the necessities for women during their menstruation or while they nurse younger children.
These are pending challenges, and wherever they occur, we will work with the authorities to assure the improvement of conditions.
Translation by Havana Times