“The Feminist Struggle in Cuba is Every Woman’s Struggle”

Por IPS-Cuba

Cuban student Yurena Manfuga believes that a comprehensive legal framework to protect victims of gender-based violence needs to be urgently approved.  Photo: Jorge Luis Banos / IPS

HAVANA TIMES –16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence is an international campaign that steps up people’s efforts, determination, initiatives and experiences against violence against women and girls… It confirms the fact this should be a daily battle everybody fights, especially women.

Cuban student Yurena Manfugas, better known as Yure, knows about this daily duty to fight. Moreover, that it’s time women have access to an abuse-free life.

Yure tries to leave her intersectional feminism in every space and with all of the people she sees. She especially tries to remain true to a struggle that is very hard to do sometimes. She belongs to a feminist group committed to women’s entrepreneurship and boosting black women’s opportunities.

A campaign to reach the population

What do the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence mean to you?

Yure Manfugas (YM): It’s extremely important to me because we are talking about a pressing issue. One that should be talked about all the time. These 16 days help to teach the general population about this subject and to raise their awareness of this global problem. It is also an opportunity to talk about the dynamics of the matter at hand, so that more activists and people join the cause. The fight against violence against women is in the spotlight during this time. Not only on social media, but also at a community level and in different spaces. It’s a really good thing that these 16 days of activism are gaining more momentum and force in Cuba.

Feminism in Cuba

In many countries the feminist movement has taken the lead in conceptualizing, raising awareness and responding to gender-based violence. How has this happened in Cuba?

YM: In Cuba, the feminist movement has experienced an interesting development process. In fact, just a few days ago, I was speaking at a workshop and people mentioned that before we only spoke about physical, psychological and sexual violence in Cuba.

So, positive steps lead to people learning about new forms of violence that women suffered before. Ones the population just didn’t know about it. The fact that many feminists are joining the cause has also helped, pushing for affirmative action.

It would also be wise if the State became more involved with these initiatives so that they could reach public spaces, in local communities. We need to knock on the doors of women who have suffered gender-based violence, and get them to join independent feminist groups in Cuba, because a lot of good can come from these shared experiences. I believe that the feminist movement is growing in Cuba, it is gaining ground. In any case, it’s still a long road with a lot still to accomplish.

What can we do?

What would you propose in order to improve the response to gender-based violence in Cuba?

YM: I believe a comprehensive legal framework to protect victims of gender-based violence is urgently needed. Forty women signed the appeal and it didn’t come to pass, unfortunately. But I think that having this law and adding a gender-focus to every other law, is our top priority. Furthermore, we need to shine a spotlight on different forms of gender-based violence. Likewise, femicide needs to be criminalized, with specific conditions and characteristics. Once we’ve done this, I believe that society will become more aware and understand a little more just how complex and difficult many women’s lives are, and their experiences of violence in Cuba. Pushing for public policies that deal with this issue is another path we should take.

When and why did you start identifying as a feminist?

YM: My maternal grandmother was a very strong woman and I grew up listening to her stories about how she was with her partners. In her intimate relationships in general. I identified with her way of being, but I didn’t know this was what feminist behavior or actions looked like.

Growing up, and taking part in spaces where gender-based violence was talked about, I began to understand my own behavior and see it as feminist. I learned more and more in my everyday… it was a gradual process. I try to be a feminist in every space I’m in and with all of the people I spend time with. These include my partner, my father, my classmates, my friends. It’s important for me that people know I’m a feminist, what they think afterwards is irrelevant.

Peoples’ reactions to being a feminist

How do people respond to you in different spaces in Cuba when you say you are a feminist?

YM: That’s hard to answer… It depends on the space and the people in that space. At university, sometimes I’ve said I’m a feminist and I’ve been called a “feminazi” or extremist. Apparently as a joke, and I find this interesting. I feel like people think of feminism as a negative word, like something they don’t understand. And that’s because they don’t understand it, they automatically attack it.

There are other spaces where I’ve said I’m a feminist and people respond well and identify with me. They ask questions and we have a conversation. There are people who don’t understand it, but want to learn about it and they approach you to ask questions. There are spaces where you are well-received and other spaces where you are attacked or just ignored. When I say it, I don’t know how people will respond. However, I still say it because it’s not something I have to hide and feel ashamed of.

Yurena Manfugas

What spaces, projects, or learning do you believe you contribute to with your feminism?

I believe I make a feminist contribution in most of the spaces I act in. Right now, I am working with Alianza Unidad Racial, and even though this space mainly focusses on fighting racism, we also have a section that is dedicated to the issue of gender and tackling gender-based violence. I am also working with Chicas Poderosas, a feminist group founded to teach about gender issues.

I always drop something about gender equality in every space I can. When I’m allowed to and even when I’m not allowed to. Two or three years ago, I founded a project that focuses on children, teenagers and young people, teaching them about gender-based violence. It is now being restructured. I got the idea when I was working at Alianza. It began as a discrimination problem. My friends would tell me very sad, violent stories, so I wanted to add the gender-based violence focus.

BarbarA’s Power

Is BarbarA’s Power gender-focused?

YM: Yes, definitely, from the very beginning. BarbarA’s Power pays special attention to the right of Afro-descendants, especially women. We are interested in promoting opportunities and giving black women a purpose. I must really emphasize this because I believe in intersectional feminism. So, the black community and black women really interest me, not just because I am black, but because I see the things that happen every day. The articles and pictures we post about the project are checked over and over again. That’s in order to prevent any violence or discrimination. We offer workshops where we have worked with domestic abuse victims. We have seen many of these women grow and become more empowered.

Plus, we only work with seamstresses because we are interested in supporting their empowerment. Most of them are also older women, housewives, who have learned to sew from their grandmothers or mothers, which we are very happy to see. We are interested in promoting this empowerment, breaking down beauty standards for women, challenging the age limit for being useful to society, that there isn’t an ideal body weight, etc.

How and why did Chicas Poderosas come to Cuba?

YM: Chicas Poderosas Cuba is a group that was founded as a branch of the global organization, Chicas Poderosas. They have a branch in many Latin American countries, but we didn’t have one in Cuba. We have an ambassador here, Liz Oliva, and she had the idea to create a Cuban branch.

The group is led by feminists, who are journalists, teachers, artists, etc. In the beginning, the project was focused on communications, like the global Chicas Poderosas organization does. However, we decided to make it more open and diverse in Cuba. Our objective is to work with intersectional feminism. We believe this is the foundation of empowering women, including in business. Likewise, calling for the media to become more gender-focused.

A struggle for all women

What do you believe intersectional feminism brings to the table?

YM: The feminist struggle has always been every women’s struggle. It can’t be a struggle of some women and not others, where one group attacks another. It needs to be all of us: white women, black women, Chinese women, with better or worse financial means. An intersectional approach needs to be the foundation of our feminism. I think about black women, white women, rural women and women living in the city. When I imagine an equal society, I think about all of them, regardless of their social standing.

What do you believe are the main challenges that lie ahead for black feminism in Cuba? From an organizational standpoint and in terms of impact?

YM: The challenges are huge. First of all, there’s the issue of racism: in Cuba, people have to accept that there is racism. If you don’t accept the problem, you can’t find a solution. We also need to understand that black women’s conditions are overall a lot more complex. Black feminism still has a long road ahead. We must create a space for black feminism, where black women feel like they belong. A place where they can see their reality and problems reflected.

This interview forms part of IPS Cuba’s series for this year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.