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The Status of Cuban Women: From Economically Dependent to Independent

By Raisa Pages

[from Granma International]
They traveled to space, to the depths of the sea, were awarded the Nobel Prize and were entered into the Guinness Book of Records, set Olympic records, held presidential posts. In short, women have dispelled the myth of the weaker sex during the 20th century.

But their biggest feat, still unattainable by man, is not confined to the search for recognition in the social, work or gender equality spheres. It is inherent in their own being, the ability to reproduce life.

In prehistoric times, men and women worked together hunting and searching for food on an equal basis and women's social displacement came into being as a result of the development of agricultural communities and urban settlements.

Slave, plebeian, servant, farm laborer, tradesperson, employed in unskilled work and jobs requiring a lot of physical effort, women went through a series of stages with a double burden: bringing up children, carrying out domestic chores and helping maintain the family. They were subjected, with the flux of history, to the prevailing patriarchal traditions although under different banners and customs, dramatically marked, particularly in the underdeveloped world.

A throne which no one disputes

Women ascended a throne which no one disputes, queen of the home, who makes life more comfortable for the rest of the family at the cost of their own social potential, their health and life, say experts in this subject from the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC).

According to a census carried out in Cuba in 1953, women made up only 19.2% of the work force in the country. They carried out chores of minimal social status, unskilled work, as domestic workers or in small family businesses; secretaries or teachers at best, and victims of a high rate of unemployment recorded in Cuba prior to the triumph of the Revolution in 1959.

Cuban women took full advantage of the revolutionary government's initiatives aimed at opening the doors to improvement and reintegration into the country's socioeconomic life in terms of education, health care, employment and projects with the goal of attaining full gender equality.

It was due to this process that between 1970 and 1990 the female labor force grew by 22.4%, while the male sector only increased by 4.2% in the same period.

While in 1990 women represented 38.9% of the work force, they now represent 43.6%, which is the equivalent to more than 1.417 million in the public sector.

Hidden skirts

Women's participation in the Cuban economy during the Special Period did not decrease. During the last four years, the female work force has increased by 36%.

The explanation for this phenomenon, contrary to the trend in other countries undergoing economic crises, owes to the fact that 66.1% of professionals and intermediate-level technicians are women.

Also, the greatest shortages of resources were in production sectors which are traditionally male-dominated.

Half a million Cuban women are engaged in highly skilled technical and professional activities.

Currently, there is a great deal of talk about the feminisation of poverty. On a global level, seven out of every 10 poor people are women or girls, according to a study carried out by the World Food Program (WFP).

Nevertheless, in Cuba there has been a feminisation of the technical and professional work force. Women represent 45% of the scientific and technical sector. More than 70% of bank employees are women, while they represent 43.9% of the work force in joint ventures and have proven their their abilities, skills and efficiency.

More than 50% of the work force in the Ministry of Public Health is female and women many hold key posts, from primary care within the community to high-ranking positions in polyclinics and hospitals.

Female creativity can also be seen within the National Association of Innovators and Rationalisers, and women have won outstanding prizes in the national forums held by this organisation.

However, female involvement in the tourism industry does not tally with the dynamic growth within this sector in the current phase of economic recovery, which is explained, according to female management, by the incorrect methods employed within the technical schools that train personnel for tourism.

To reverse this process, the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) is promoting measures aimed at obtaining equity in terms of gender among those selected to enroll in tourism training schools.

The Cuban government's approval of a range of self-employment activities has currently enabled 42,267 women to earn a living on their own; more than 50% of them were previously housewives.

Women landowners

While thousands of women throughout the world are calling for a plot of land to farm, in Cuba more than 11,200 women are now using land in usufruct to grow tobacco, coffee, cacao and garden vegetables, thanks to an initiative begun in 1993 which continues to expand.

The majority of these farms are in mountainous areas, meaning that inhabitants of these parts now have an opportunity to improve their food and earnings.

The number of women in agricultural work has grown by more than 51,200 over the past three years, in addition to the fact that the increase in industrial processing of tobacco created some 12,000 new posts for women in 1998 and 1999. Within the sugar processing sector, both in terms of agriculture and industry, female employment is on the rise.

Women currently occupy 30% of the work force within the Ministry of the Sugar Industry, holding posts previously held only by men, as cane harvester operators, cane cutters, sugar processing managers, experts in quality control, economists and more.

They also hold key positions such as executives of agro- industrial sugar complexes, administrators of sugar mills and they take part in the research of important projects aimed at diversifying this crop.

Impact of the `special period'

Even though statistics indicate that the Special Period did not decimate female participation in the work force, we must not forget the social impact and suffering it entailed for women and their families starting in the early 1990s.

The home and the family have been damaged by the double blockade: that of the United States and that which occurred with the sudden demise of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist bloc.

At the start of the Special Period, owing to the severe transportation problems, which have not yet been resolved, many women workers had to change jobs in order to be closer to home. In addition, those services aimed at alleviating the domestic burden suffered cutbacks.

All this took its physical toll on women. Their strength and perseverance are evident in the many schemes and initiatives developed to alleviate the effects of the Special Period, both in their working life and in the family.

They confront widespread shortages bravely and are very creative when it comes to ensuring that their families are adequately fed and that their children attend school clean and in uniform.

Women showed a great ability to adapt themselves to temporary work when work places had to close down because there weren't enough raw materials, fuel or electricity. Now that the process of economic recovery within Cuba is progressing smoothly, women are reaping the benefits of the resultant improvements.

The fact that construction of day-care centres came to a halt due to lack of materials influenced the reintegration of young mothers into the work force.

This difficulty, which still prevails, has compelled those with young children to become reliant on retired women or housewives who offer their services as babysitters. But this option is not open to everyone, since prices set in the private sector are higher than the minimal prices established in state-owned day- care Centres, where food and educational programs are coordinated by skilled personnel with the aim of educating children prior to their enrollment in elementary school.

At the same time, material shortages in day-care centres, even though they are given priority for the limited resources available in the country, are the cause of temporary closures of these facilities, which has negative repercussions on the work patterns of many mothers.

To mitigate these effects, informal educational projects have been set up in the community involving housewives or retired women who are trained and guided by the Ministry of Education and the FMC to care for and educate children.

In rural areas, improvised Centres have been founded which care for children of female agricultural workers and laborers living in remote or isolated regions.

They bear the heaviest burden

A number of experts from the FMC's Women's Studies Centre indicate that women are the ones who have been hardest hit by the difficulties of daily life in the Special Period.

However, they point out that the involvement of other family members in domestic chores is increasingly seen. One doesn't have to look at statistics to note that there are men who, when confronted by the need to care for a sick child, will decide to stay home if his wife makes a higher salary. Of course, this is not the norm, but this kind of behavior can be seen more and more, thus breaking the stereotypical chauvinist relationship prevalent until now.

Unequal relationships within couples, experts argue, have not changed to the same degree as the current social role of women, even when the woman contributes a substantial part of the family income. The excess tension unleashed by women in the domestic sphere is often a source of conflict, without underestimating the pressures resulting from male chauvinism, according to Carolina Aguilar, Perla Popowski and Mercedes Verdeses in a study carried out by the Women's Studies Centre.

Prostitution: a phenomenon with multiple causes

A subject which has been played to the hilt in the foreign press and the focus of public debate by Cuban journalists, the resurgence of prostitution in Cuba during the Special Period, a social stigma eradicated by the Revolution through its program of social justice, is a phenomenon with multiple causes. It cannot be seen as the only option to resolving economic difficulties. This profession, which is as old as humanity itself, is present throughout the world. Economic motives cannot be dismissed, but analysis must also encompass the gender perspective, on account of the discriminatory perception and self-perception of the woman as a sex object, as well as the distortion of values arising out of an overemphasis on material possessions.

Experts in this area agree that behind the return of prostitution in Cuba is the search for easy earnings by young people avoiding work, social and family responsibilities. At the start of the Special Period the activities of the so-called jineteras was more open and had a certain degree of impunity.

However, the program of preventative action aimed at halting its spread has had an impact on the public practice of prostitution.

The pyramid of power

Officials and experts in the national leadership of the FMC say, "We are the majority of the economic base but a minority in power". While in 1996, 30% of women held leadership positions, the percentage last year rose to 32.2%.

Three women are at the head of important ministries: domestic trade, foreign investment, and technology, science and the environment.

Within the Communist Party of Cuba, women are in the Central Committee and the Political Bureau and two women are first secretaries of this political organization in two vital economic regions: Matanzas and Pinar del Rmo, both in western Cuba.

Within the National Assembly, 27.6% of the deputies are women. Cuba is 12th in the list of women parliamentary representatives, surpassed only by those nations which have set minimum quotas for women representatives.

Reina Muros, FMC official in promotion and mass media, says, "We are still not satisfied because there is a great deal of ability and intelligence which are not being utilised." She emphasises, "It is not the case that women restrict themselves as some argue; rather, they have a double shift, at home and in the workplace, that prevents their access to leadership positions."

Almost half the Cuban population and women electorate are still not fairly represented in the highest administrative, political and legislative spheres.

After the World Conference on Women in Beijing, Cuba initiated a government program incorporating more than 80 measures directed toward improving the situation of Cuban women, with the participation of all state bodies and institutions involved in the search for solutions to the range of problems remaining.

The 7th FMC Congress, which will be held from March 6 to 8 in Havana, will be a new forum from which women will demand rights withheld from them, not by law but by traditions still existing within Cuban society.

The throne of the queen of the household is a sceptre which the majority of the family, particularly men, do not wish to share, even when their partners are women who are increasingly more educated and efficient.

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