This week is an important moment to focus on the economic, political and social achievements of women as we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8. While countries have a long way to go in promoting gender equality, a report by the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) looks at where Cuba stands among them.
The report is the culmination of more than two years of research on the comparative economic, social and political standing of women in Cuba. It includes dozens of interviews on the status of gender equality which reveal, despite its global standing as a leader on certain gender issues, where Cuba falls short in achieving equality.
The study begins in the 1950s, with a synopsis of the commitments to equal rights made by Cuban revolutionaries before they came to power. We then identify six policies that produced the biggest changes: efforts to increase female workforce participation; national commitments to education and health care; adoption of a constitutional and legal architecture that protects women’s rights; the incorporation of women’s equality and rights as a core part of the revolution’s political project; creation of women’s organizations to serve as advocates for change; and a successful, early campaign to end illiteracy in Cuba.
These and other efforts enable Cuba to fulfill the Millennium Development Goals for primary education, gender equality and reducing infant mortality—and score first among developing countries in maternal mortality, live births attended by health care personnel and female life expectancy at birth, according to Save the Children.
But, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Cuba has a long way to go when outcomes are measured against key gender equality objectives: access to higher-paying jobs; achieving a fair division of labor at work and home; and access to positions of real power in the communist party or government.
Part of the problem, sexism in the workplace, will be familiar to women everywhere. Mimi, an academic, shared with us what her boss told her when she was considering life plans: “Don’t even think about having a baby, because you’re going to throw your career out the window. Don’t have a baby and don’t get married.”
Another obstacle is political. President Raúl Castro discussed the underrepresentation in leadership of young people, Afro-Cubans and women in a speech at the 6th Congress of the Communist Party in 2011: “It’s really embarrassing that we have not solved this problem in more than half a century.”
But two years later, “this problem,” as he called it, has not been solved. Raúl Castro has announced he will abide by his presidential term limit, but Cuba’s gender equality accomplishments are very much at risk. Actions taken by the government to update its economic model—such as cutting state jobs and reallocating education and health resources—could also endanger gains made by women, made possible by the revolution’s early commitment to equality. Aware of this situation, our report offers policy recommendations for how Cuban women can play a greater role in building their country’s future.
There is broad agreement in development policy that gender equality is a human right and correlates to economic success and good governance. Barbara, an entrepreneur, told us that economic reforms have allowed her to open a small business, manage her own decisions, save money, and even reduce her reliance on her husband:
“My life has improved over the last several years with the possibility of working as a cuentapropista (owning an account). More than anything, the benefit of being a cuentapropista is the ability to manage your own decisions. I can decide how to invest, what hours to work, whether I want to offer special deals and other decisions regarding how to manage the business. In other words, I’m my own boss and I suffer the consequences, but also reap the benefits of my decisions.”
This is happening across Cuba, and what happens economically will have repercussions politically. As women—and men—are more empowered, they are better able to decide whether to work at home or travel abroad to earn a living. This creates more space in the system, and ultimately creates more opportunities in the political sphere or in senior management hierarchies for women to lead and exercise real power.
Should this matter to the U.S.? We think so. The alternative to our stale diplomacy and outdated Cold War policies is supporting the idea of a prosperous and more equal Cuba 90 miles from our shores. If we engage with Cuba on issues like gender equality, it will help our two countries move closer to normalization and remove an obstacle that divides the U.S. from our neighbors in Latin America.
The report is available for download here.
Originally posted in Americas Quarterly: