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The Federation of Cuban Women: A Model We Should Learn From

Vilma Espin, president of the FMC

Vilma Espin, president of the FMC

- By Suki Sangha and Sarah Collins

Suki Sangha and Sarah Collins visited Cuba as part of the international trade unionists youth brigade for May Day this year, organised by the Cuba solidarity campaign. They spoke to women from the Federacion de Mujeres Cubanas (Federation of Cuban Women) about the position and progression of women in Cuba.

The Cuban Revolution of 1959 brought with it radical change which would fundamentally transform the political landscape and daily lives of the Cuban people. The revolutionary struggle brought with it significant change which continues today to improve the lives of millions of women.

Prior to 1959, women experienced high levels of inequality and oppression in Cuba. This, coupled with the struggle against exploitation and exclusion, meant that for the majority of women, education and work were never an option. Similar to many of the patriarchal societies of Latin America, women experienced limited opportunities and were confined to society’s stereotypical gender roles of primary carers and constrained to the realm of the home. Mistreatment of women by men was seldom taken seriously by the authorities and more often than not the legal system would benefit the interests of the men. Like any other capitalist system, sexism was rife within Cuban society.

From its inception the FMC (Federation of Cuban Women) has been successful in effecting positive changes in Cuban society. It was established in 1960, one year after the revolution, with Vilma Espín as its President. Espin fought in the Sierra Maestras with Fidel Castro and Raul Castro and was the President of the Federation until her death in 2007. The FMC has over 3 million members – over 80% of the female population aged 14 and over – ranging from the grassroots level of the barrios (neighbourhoods), through the municipal, provincial and national levels to the Trade Union General Secretaries, making it the biggest NGO in Latin America.

The organisation operates on a local, regional and national basis with elected representation and leadership. While the FMC plays a central role in organising people around key political questions, it also works on a grassroots level, organising around the issues affecting women in their communities. Within different localities the FMC has been involved in grass-roots campaigning around health and education as well as advocating greater equality for women in all aspects of their lives. The Federation has also led prominent campaigns to improve literacy and access to education as well as being at the forefront of challenging traditional gender roles. Furthermore, it is also worth noting that that the FMC plays a crucial role in developing non-sexist attitudes amongst school pupils- working with the younger generations to ensure stereotypes are challenged during early development.

On our recent visit to Cuba, we attended a meeting of the Federation of Cuban Women. The women we heard from spoke about how they work within the barrios in order to try and change the patriarchal and misogynist culture which still prevails in the home. Working with families, they explain that it is not the woman’s role to cook and clean. Instead, they argue that men and women should share the household tasks, allowing women more time out of the home to work or pursue leisure pursuits. They also told us that women are guaranteed 18 weeks paid maternity leave. After that, they can extend their leave at 60% pay until the child is one year old. However, the speakers also said that, in order to break down the social norm that women are the ones who stay at home, they are working with the legislature to ensure that any leave after the 18 weeks can be taken by father or mother. They admit that targeting this machismo attitude is difficult and patriarchal stereotypes often still prevail.

This may be, in part, due to the influx of tourists to Cuba which has brought a rise in prostitution. The Cuban revolution is a great example of what can be achieved for women’s rights and how traditional gender roles and preconceptions can be defeated. However, on our recent trip it became apparent that prostitution still very much exists. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent economic crisis has led to the re-emergence of prostitution in some of Cuba’s largest cities. The USSR had always been Cuba’s biggest trading partner and on its collapse and coupled with the US economic blockade, Cuba suffered heavily. Today Cuba relies hugely upon the money brought in through international tourism.

With the rise in tourism in Cuba, there has been a rise in the sex industry, bringing with it US Dollars which means big money and some financial stability for many women who enter prostitution – although mostly for their pimps.

Prior to the revolution, prostitution was not only confined to external tourism but also used by Cuban men. One of the goals of the revolution had been to end prostitution and bring women into working society- removing them from the realm of their home but also to help enhance production and boost the economy. Prostitution was almost completely eradicated after the revolution, similar to Russia in 1917.

The Federation of Cuban women worked to integrate women back into society through rehabilitation and also through campaigns to help women into work through literacy support, training and also providing care centres for children whilst women worked.

Prostitution is not promoted by the government, but the internet has played a large part in the promotion of sex tours. Many prominent magazines internationally use images of scantily clad women to promote a particular ‘experience’ to male readers. Subsequently, the ‘sexual paradise’ promoted through the internet means an increasing number of sex tourists, with statistics indicating a higher number of male tourists visiting Cuba than female tourists. Although the National Assembly have taken steps to curb sexist advertising, the easy availability of information via the internet makes it increasing difficult to control.

While legislation around prostitution is often futile, many of the gains made to improve the lives of women and the fight for greater equality have come through legislation. For Fidel Castro, women’s rights were seen as a ‘revolution within a revolution’ and through changes in legislation and policy this commitment to women’s rights became possible. However, implementation and enforcement of legislation has in a large part been achieved through the work of the FMC.

The FMC was deeply involved in the 1961 Cuban Literacy Campaign (99% of all Cuban women are now literate) and in supplying workers after the mass exodus of trained labour following the Revolution. Open to all women over the age of 14, the FMC works on issues ranging from domestic abuse to job training for women and helps to inform government policy, and the curriculum, on these issues. The FMC also runs free childcare centres for children under the age of seven, a great help to the women who now make up 42% of Cuba’s workforce.

Partly as a result of FMC campaigning, Cuba’s outstanding healthcare system places a high priority on women’s needs. Women have access to many forms of contraception, and abortion is legal and accessible. All healthcare is free – a remarkable achievement given that the criminal US blockade on Cuba includes a trade ban, 90% of which encompasses medical supplies and food. The UN Statistics Division records the infant mortality rate at four per thousand, lower than the US rate of six per thousand, and the 4.5 per thousand rate of the UK.

The FMC model is one we would not recognise in the UK. As an NGO, it works collaboratively with the governmental ministries and is granted an ‘advisory’ role. It is difficult to interpret this sort of relationship. On the one hand, this is positive as women are given a clear voice in the government which is, prima facie, a government which is working in the interests of the Cuban people. On the other hand, the top of the FMC is perhaps a little too close to the government, bearing in mind the President of the FMC for over 40 years was Raul Castro’s wife. This perhaps makes it difficult for grassroots women to push their agenda. However, because of the blockade on Cuba, it is difficult to analyse these issues, bearing in mind the context is completely different to Western capitalist societies.

Despite some of its issues, the FMC has made some huge advancements. Along with the grassroots reforms already mentioned, 57% of trade union general secretaries in Cuba are women, along with 77% of attorneys, while today Cuba is ranked number 3 in the world when it comes to female participation within the political sphere and in Parliament. Conversely, in the UK women constitute only 46% of solicitors, while the UK ranks at just number 56 worldwide for female political participation, despite the common notion that as a society we are so progressive as to no longer need feminism in any form. If a country like Cuba, with a history of strained economic relations with large trade partners, social and political upheaval can make such progression at both national and grassroots level through the organisation and education of women, then we must ask ourselves why such little priority is given to women’s issues in the UK. The FMC certainly a model we could learn a lot from.

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