Cuban Revolution and Women’s Liberation
By Tamara Hansen
"I’ve been interested in… the history of those little grandmothers, small domestic marvels who embroider the table cloths where their oppressors would eat."
"For forty years I have tried to give life to a chorus of voices historically silenced who are reborn in the language of my work far beyond their origins, their race or their gender."
- Two quotes from Nancy Morejón (a Cuban poet) receiving the Golden Wreath Award in Struga, Macedonia
International Women’s Day – March 8th
Every year March 8th comes as a day to celebrate the accomplishments of women; to commemorate women who have been lost – as victims of oppression or heroines for our liberation; and to reaffirm the goals and aims of our continued fight for equality.
Women are a diverse group of people. We are of different backgrounds, cultures, countries, races, ages, and classes. However, we are all similarly oppressed in a world that privileges men. In our history and present, we have let this diversity both divide us and other times we have overcome these obstacles to protect and advance our rights. Fighting for women’s equality and liberation is not only for women, but for all of humanity. It is a well known fact that one of the most important steps to improving the lives of children - is the empowerment of women.
Advancing women’s rights is a constant struggle. Today in this era characterized by war, both at home in imperialist countries, and abroad in oppressed or ‘third world’ countries – women’s rights are coming under attack and many gains are being violently or silently taken away. There is one country that has truly made great strides in offering women hope, Cuba. Some people might ask, “How is this true?” Well let us look a bit at the situation for women in Canada and Iraq, and then let’s talk a bit more about women in Cuba.
Canada: an Imperialist Country
“Women in Canada still only earn 72.5 cents for every dollar earned by a man.”
- BC Federation of Labour Press Release, October 5th 2007
Living in Canada we look at many of the gains made by the women’s rights movement and many feel we have come far enough, but unfortunately as women our rights are never guaranteed and can always come under renewed attack. Most recently the Conservative government announced its 38.5% budget cut to the Status of Women agency and the removal “women’s equality” from the goals of the agency.
Some people might ask, “But aren’t women equal in Canada? Do they really NEED a special agency to promote their equality?” A good response to that comes from the government’s own statistics to be found on the Stats Can website. In its 2005 report on women, 20% of all families with children were single-parent female-headed families and these families have, by far, the lowest incomes of all family types in Canada. In 2003, single-parent families headed by women had an average income of only 38% of the figure for double-parent families and less than 60% that of single-parent families headed by men.
Most importantly the report charged that in 2003, the average annual pre-tax income of women was just 62% the figure for men – how’s that for equal?
Not only this, abuse against women is also very prevalent in Canada as a 2006 report by the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS) showed that over half of women in Canada were victims of at least one act of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16.
Important to note as well that on top of these cuts to programs for women, the government of Canada has instead increased tax cuts and the military spending budget.
Iraq: an Occupied Country
“Kawkab Sami wakes up at 5 o'clock every morning to clean her house and feed her four children breakfast before getting them off to school. As a resident of Baghdad, the 35-year-old widow says she lives in constant fear of a bomb killing her children and herself at any moment. Her husband was killed by US troops in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Her children are between the ages of 4 and 10. With only a few hours of power a day at home, no clean water, and broken sewer pipes in the road outside, Sami cries every night, worried about how long she will be able to take care of her family and keep them healthy. "I cannot afford a generator and special filter for the water because my salary is hardly enough for the main needs of my children...People tell me that I have to boil the [tap] water before I drink it, but I will need to use gas to do that and it is so expensive. The only thing I can do is pray my children do not get sick from it,” she added.”
– October 6th 2006, from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
While Sami’s story is an important illustration of the burden put on women in Iraq and especially women in now single-parent families; war takes its toll on every aspect of life. Especially access to important resources needed to survive with dignity: food, water, shelter, jobs, healthcare and education. Usually women are the first to go without as they will give everything to their husbands and children, because of this, women suffer the most under war and occupation.
In Iraq the healthcare system is in shambles. For example, Iraq’s Ministry of Health says that the US government has spent nearly US $1Billion on Iraq's healthcare system, but they also say more than $8Billion is required over the next four years to fund the current healthcare structure. The shortages seen by this lack of funding are already evident as the Iraqi Medical Association (IMA) reported that 90% of the nearly 180 Iraqi hospitals are lacking resources.
Because of the violence and destruction in Iraq many families are being forced to move, this is not only devastating for the family which is forced from their home, but is also having an impact on provinces that people are moving to. Ghalib al-Daami, a member of Karbala Provincial Council admitted to IRIN news, "The province is suffering under the pressure of the increasing number of displaced families. Service directorates like health, education and municipality are no longer capable of meeting the needs of more families."
US/UK war and occupation is also taking its toll on children’s access to education. In 2004, only two years after the bombing started, Roger Wright of UNICEF said: "Iraq used to have one of the finest school systems in the Middle East…Today, millions of children in Iraq are attending schools that lack even basic water or sanitation facilities, have crumbling walls, broken windows and leaking roofs. The system is overwhelmed."
“Aid agencies estimate that thousands of Iraqi parents do not send their daughters to school for cultural reasons and because of the general insecurity in the country,” reported IRIN news only two months ago in December 2006. Instability is also causing the literacy rates to decline. UNESCO estimates that the literacy rate in Iraq as of Dec 11 2006 was below 60 percent, this is horrifying, considering between 2000-2003 literacy was much higher at 74 percent. According to UNICEF in 2004, only 37 percent of rural women are literate, and only 30 percent of high school aged women are enrolled in school which compares to about 42 percent of boys.
Cuba: A Permanent Revolutionary Development
"The main thrust behind our development has been a Revolution that since its beginning on January 1st 1959, put women in an important place, and the FMC [Cuban Federation of Women] has been part of that battle since the beginning… The women’s situation in Cuba is important. Before the revolutionary triumph, we were second in the Cuban society, and our presence today has expanded to all levels of the country's social and economic life."
- Yolanda Ferrer, General Secretary of the FMC, March 7th 2006
Cuban women did not always have the advantage of living in a society where the people and government are fighting on the side of women. “Prejudices are thousands of years old and have survived through various social systems. If we consider capitalism, women – that is, lower-class women – were doubly exploited or doubly humiliated. A poor woman, part of the working class or of a working class family, was exploited simply because she was poor, because she was a member of the working class. But in addition, although she was a woman of the working class, even her own class looked down and underrated her,” said Cuban President Fidel Castro in 1966. He continued,
“Naturally, a considerable amount of prejudice still persists. If women were to believe that they have totally fulfilled their role as revolutionaries in society, they would be making a mistake. It seems to us that women must still fight and exert great efforts to attain the place that they should really hold in society. If women in our country were doubly humiliated in the past, then this simply means that women in a social revolution should be doubly revolutionary.”
Today 86% of women in Cuba have voluntarily joined the Cuban Women’s Federation (FMC). In a report on the United Nations meeting of the Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women, a Cuban representative explained how the Federation of Cuban Women was developed in the early years of the revolution as a political organization. Today this federation represents a broad range of women in the country, of all ages, religions, professions and races. For more than 48 years, the organization has built influence and recognition in society, because it reflects the needs and views of women. One of the focuses of the local FMC’s in each municipality is teaching women about their rights in their workplace, at home and in society.
An interview in 2000 with a woman named Theresa Vigil from Habitat-Cuba cited some important statistics to understand the situation of women in Cuba. She said, “With rent, and childcare geared to income, free education and all medical services for children free, the economic burden on single mothers is greatly eased. Women are entitled to three months’ maternity leave at full salary, from 1 ½ month before to 1 ½ month after delivery. After that a mother has the right to six months of leave at half her salary while she retains the right to return to her job for up to one year.”
An important document for women in Cuba is The Family Code, which was passed into law in 1974. Interestingly the United States State Department’s “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices “ outlines quite well what the Code is about. “The Family Code states that women and men have equal rights and responsibilities regarding marriage, divorce, raising children, maintaining the home, and pursuing a career.” This report released on Feb 28th 2005 goes on to say, “the most recent (2000) public figures of the Cuban Women's Federation (FMC), a mass organization affiliated with the CP [Communist Party], women held 33% of managerial positions. The FMC also asserted that 11,200 women received land parcels to cultivate, more than 561,000 women had begun working as agricultural workers, and that women devoted 34 hours a week to domestic work, approximately the same number of hours they spent working outside the home.” Women’s power in divorce is also higher, for example under the Family Code a man can not evict a woman with underage children from a house because the children would be left unprotected.
Today women have made big steps forward, representing 45.2% of the active labour force in the state civil sector, and 66.4% in technical and professional force, according to the Peoples´ Power Assembly. A recent census in Cuba also showed that women head 40% of households. Since the 2005 elections, women now hold 28.19% of the political posts in local government, this percentage is larger in the national parliament, but we will discuss that later.
Organizations such as the FMC push women in Cuba to get involved in politics. Not necessarily by running for a position in government (although the FMC does have representation in top levels of the Cuban government) but more in terms of recognizing and evaluating the situation facing women and looking for ways to improve the situation of women in Cuba and around the world. As a part of this, the FMC runs or supports different political and educational campaigns. For example as a lead up to International Women’s Day last year, over 300,000 Cuban women signed petitions against war and terrorism as part of the international campaign “Women Say No to War”.
Cuba and Canada, which Government is Working for Women?
In UNICEF’s list of the 15 countries in the world with the highest participation of women in political power, Cuba appears as number eight, with 36% of its parliamentary seats occupied by women. Interestingly, Cuba is counted as one of only two countries on this list of 15 that do not have either constitutional, electoral law or political party quotas for female involvement in parliament. Further added to all of this, Canada and the United States appear nowhere on this list, in fact Canada ranks 47th in the world as only 20.7% of parliamentarians in Canada are women. Although these statistics are important, we must note that having more women in Canada’s parliament does not insure that she will represent the interests of women. For instance, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Status of Women - Bev Oda, a member of Conservative Party - encouraged the government’s cuts to the Status of Women Agency.
In Cuba most women are organized within the FMC and because of that, voters in Cuba are assured that women who run for official positions have women’s issues on their agenda. Cuba does not have quotas for women’s involvement in parliament, because as Fidel said they must fight twice as hard to achieve their rights. Cuban women are elected based on their qualities as equal human beings, not to fill a certain prescription.
Another interesting way to compare Canada and Cuba is government spending. From UNICEF statistics we learn that, an average of 23% of the Cuban government’s expenditures from 1994-2004 were allocated to health, while during the same period 10% was allocated to education. This is in what is considered to be a developing or ‘third world’ country with an annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of approximately $40Billion. In Canada, a much richer country with an annual GDP of $1Trillion, the government spent 9% of it annual expenditures on health and 2% on education from 1994-2004.
Women’s Liberation – Change is possible!
Cuba is by no means perfect, however, something they fought for and gained is access to their true human rights: jobs, education, housing and health. These human rights are provided for all in Cuba. This is especially advantageous to women because, as mentioned before, in situations of poverty or scarcity women are usually the ones who will give up what little they have for their families.
In Cuba families are not so desperate to have to make these kinds of choices and the government is standing beside them, opening space, especially for women, to get involved in the revolutionary process taking place in their country. In the same speech I cited earlier from 1966, Fidel Castro said, “Discrimination will never be wiped out within the framework of capitalist society. Discrimination with respect to race and sex can only be wiped out through socialist revolution, which eradicates the exploitation of man by man. Now, does the disappearance of the exploitation of man by man mean that all the conditions are immediately created whereby woman may elevate her position in society? No. The conditions for the liberation of women, for the full development of women in society, for an authentic equality of rights for women and men in society, require a material base; they require the material foundations of economic and social development.”
We can trust Fidel’s assessment of steps needed to advance towards the liberation of women. History and the present illustrate well that women’s rights have never been handed to women; we have always had to fight for them. But today in Cuba women are not fighting alone, they have the support and encouragement of the Cuban government and society, and the unprecedented step being taken towards the equality of women.
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