In 2017, for the first time, there was a Global Women’s Strike. In more than fifty countries, coordinated collective actions were programmed by women of different social classes; political militancy; cultural, “racial,” ethnic belongings; biological sex; sexual orientation; age; immigration status. It was unprecedented.
The large number and strong bond of women’s and feminist organizations were shown. In Latin America, the movement had already gained strength and presence since approximately 2015. The vast majority of governments today—unlike a decade ago—have to speak out on issues placed on their agenda by feminisms. How they do it defines their conservative, authoritarian, or progressive caliber.
The 2017 global strike raised world feminist concerns, without denying the specificities of each territory and of each experience of women’s reality. It drew attention to women’s unequal access to jobs and decision-making positions; about our greater difficulty in keeping those jobs or in performing them in decent conditions; on the domestic work that we carry out at home and for the care of children, the elderly, or the sick and that is not paid or recognized; about sexist violence; on the limitation of our sexual and reproductive rights and the advance of religious neo-conservatism; on the need to stand up against injustice.
There was a call to stop work, caregiving and consumption. Forms of accompaniment were also designed for those who could not fully join this action. The main slogan was: “If our work does not matter, produce without us.” Powerful.
The whys and whereases of each of the contents of that agenda have long been argued by feminist and trans, migrant, indigenous, Afro-descendant, rural, urban, youth, and union organizations; by the intellectual voices within the rank and file militancy and/or in the academy; by international organizations.
March 8, Cuba and feminisms. Do we stop?
In 2021, a diverse spectrum of ways of living and thinking about March 8 becomes visible in Cuba. A line of discourse and politics affirms—as the Cuban Ecured Encyclopedia has been doing until now—that although “for decades the date was for female claims” today “this day is one of joy and recognition of Cuban women.” For this reason, in many workplaces, political, community, the flowers of rigor are delivered. There will be “congratulations” and reminders that we are the most beautiful and delicate flowers that meet challenges with courage and strength, tenderness and the greatest inspiration in this world. The order of things in the country is celebrated because it guarantees all rights.
For others, there is much to celebrate and, at the same time, challenges still exist. Progress has been made in ensuring gender equity but it is an unfinished battle. There are still “traces” that “we have to eliminate.” The attacks of the United States government against the Cuban people and government are essential to understand the limits of equity.
Still for others, March 8 is not a celebratory date but a commemorative one and for the struggle for rights and their guarantees. It is a time to make visible inequalities, the feminist collective fabric and to propose strategies to the public powers and/or to the scope of organizations.
Surely there are more positions. The fact is that the political sense of March 8 is much more disputed today. In 2017, very little, almost nothing, was said about the International Women’s Strike. In 2018 there was more talk. Today the matter is audible.
Understood as challenges, missing rights, insufficient guarantees, or persistent structures of inequality, the question of whether we Cuban women would have reasons to join the global strike is, at least, pertinent. There are? Does the order of things in Cuba—its institutions, its non-institutional feminist actors, the U.S. financial and commercial blockade on the country, internal programs and policies— admit communication with the strike agenda? For what should we have to fight in Cuba?
- For fair access to resources and the labor market
With the triumph of the 1959 Revolution, an intense program of what was called “incorporation of women into wage labor” was very quickly deployed. It was considered—as within socialist women’s organizations—that this would be the path to “women’s liberation.” In Eastern Europe, in 1980, women made up half of the workforce. In Western Europe, on the same date, they were 32%, and in Latin America, 22%.
In Cuba, the inclusion of women in the so-called “productive sectors” and in the “tasks of the Revolution” was very rapid. In Latin America, women’s labor force participation was also increasing, but more slowly and in worse conditions. More women began to have their own resources. The process, however, had a ceiling. After 1990, the inclusion of women in salaried work slowed down. The fall of the socialist camp, the economic crisis and the slowdown in the growth of daycare centers were fundamental factors.
Today, the labor participation rate of Cuban women is 53.3%. That means that almost one in two women of working age does not have a formal job. The figure is slightly lower than the regional average: 54%. The gap with respect to the labor participation rate of men is more than 20%, also as in the average of countries in the region.
Cuban women are having barriers to access labor markets. We know that this limits our economic autonomy and, consequently, our negotiation and decision-making capacities within households; it hinders the exit from cycles of violence and reproduces relations of dependency. In addition, this is how the country underutilizes the capacities of women, who in Cuba have high educational levels. That we are more than 60% of those who participate in the science sector, for example, is true; and the low participation in the labor markets of non-scientists does not change anything.
The private sector, which generally offers higher incomes, poses more barriers for women, who make up about 34% of its members and it seems that most of them are employees and not business owners.
In the case of rural women, the situation worsens. And even more for trans persons; a study carried out in 2017 verified that only slightly more than a third (39.9%) were linked to study or work, that 43% were looking for work and that stereotypes for them were a powerful barrier to their economic autonomy.
So, inequality in access to salaried work is a problem in Cuba, to the detriment of women. Access to education and health, which are public and universal, does not depend on their employment relations, but that does not eliminate their economic dependence. So far there are no clear public policies in this regard. The problem is not the content of the “updating” or “reorganization.” From what has been said, it is not a vestige. It is a structure. It is urgent to politicize this situation and act on it.
- For the guarantee of labor rights for women and all persons in all sectors of the economy
The Labor Code recognizes broad labor rights for all. One of them, notable on the regional map, is maternity and paternity leave. In Cuba, as in Chile and Paraguay, the leave for the birth of sons or daughters is 18 weeks; in addition, it can be shared between the mother and the father and other paid or unpaid leave can be added to its term. There is also, for the state sector, unpaid leave for family care.
These labor rights are robust and have guarantees in the state sector of the economy. In the non-state sector, with more than 32% of the employed, this is not the case. In fact, it is very possible that this defines the problems for the access or permanence of women in the non-state sector, and especially in the private sector. There, labor rights have no guarantees, they are fragile, they are not well regulated. The reasons are multiple.
One, important, is that there is no recognition of small and medium-sized enterprises and, therefore, the bureaucratic apparatus does not have a way to demand compliance with labor rights. Another is that there are no inspections for that purpose. Furthermore, there are no incentives for compliance with labor rights. In 2017, the Federation of Cuban Women drew attention, in an article in the state press, to this situation. The limitation of labor rights is a daily occurrence for female salaried workers in the private sector. For those who do not have a contract, even more so, because they fall into the bag of the informal sector that is outside of all norms. That scenario poses a problem. In this regard, no action has been taken in recent years. It is, however, another urgent need.
- For a national care policy
Women and girls dedicate 12,500 million hours a day, around the world, to caring for other people (children, the elderly or the sick) and to ensuring that homes function (they cook, wash, fetch water where there is no service, food…and much more). We do this without any remuneration, without recognition and often in extremely precarious conditions. That work, however, has value: human value and monetary value.
It has been calculated that in Latin America the unpaid domestic and care work that women do, mainly, is equivalent to between 15% and 25% of the countries’ Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The same thing happens in Cuba: the only existing calculation shows a figure of 20% for 2001.
Cuba, like Uruguay and Chile, is demographically aging. Care needs grow as there is an older adult population, and to this is added that of children and adolescents, sick people and people with physical or mental dependence.
A key policy in the history of “real socialism” was the socialization of care through public nurseries, popular laundries, workers’ dining rooms, and so on. In Cuba, it also happened. Very early on, childcare centers began to be created (1961) and other services that contributed to relieve families (and women) of these jobs.
At present, services, policies and standards related to care are insufficient, not designed to pierce the sexual division of labor, and constitute a significant barrier to women’s access to employment. State childcare centers, for example, cover only about 23% of potential demand. The same is true for permanent or day homes for the elderly. Social assistance for mothers who care for children with severe disabilities has decreased by half in the last decade.
According to the information from the last National Census (2012), out of every 100 people who do not have a formal job or are not looking for one, 44 are engaged in “household chores”; and out of every 100 of them, 91 are women. The latest Survey on Gender Equality, for its part, showed the gap between men and women regarding the use of time: women dedicate an additional 14 hours a week to unpaid domestic and care work.
The “Economic and Social Guidelines of the Party and the Revolution” (2011) recognized that care work is central in Cuba, but the Constitution of the Republic (2019) placed the family as the main responsible for care. With that regulation, moreover, we Cubans lost the opportunity to have it recognized that unpaid domestic and care work is work; there it continued to define work as only that which is carried out within the framework of monetary relations.
Due to the economic crisis the country is experiencing, it might seem that it is impossible to think about all that. However, many times it involves a restructuring of existing services, rethinking the regulations, stimulating business and private sector, community and cooperative co-responsibility, and designing efficient policies that force co-responsibility of men. In short, it is about the care that is at the center of life going to the center of politics.
In February 2020, the First National Workshop on Care was held in Cuba. So far there have been no changes in public policy. A care stoppage in Cuba would make the entity we are talking about visible. Our work matters.
- For effective comprehensive sexual education programs. For access to contraceptives and menstrual hygiene products
Cuba is one of the five countries in the region where voluntary termination of pregnancies is possible. Before the triumph of the Revolution, there was already a flexible interpretation of the Social Defense Code of 1936 but it was from the mid-1960s when services expanded in access and guarantees.
Feminist organizations and collectives around the world continue to struggle for autonomy over their own body; especially, for the right to free interruption of pregnancies. In Cuba, it is a guarantee, although we know that in rural territories or far from provincial capitals there are access problems. The Constitution (2019) recognized sexual and reproductive rights and that was one of its good news.
A different but related and lacking issue for Cuban women is the need for wide-ranging and efficient sex education programs. A sign that the existing ones do not work is the high rates of teenage pregnancies and births in the country when compared with the general pregnancy rates. It has also been shown that where rural areas are located, black and mestizo skin color, low levels of schooling are variables that show a significant relationship with teenage pregnancies. That, then, is a lack. The possibilities of institutional synergy in Cuba are a strength to be able to deploy more efficient and attractive programs for children and adolescents, which today have limitations.
Similarly, there is a serious problem of access to contraceptives, especially condoms. The statistics for contraception coverage are high. But that problem is verified in reality. On March 7, Alma Mater magazine published an extensive report on the crisis in the availability of these contraceptives. Of the 106 pharmacies in 75 municipalities in the country with which they contacted, only two had condoms. The reasons for the shortage given by officials are related, for example, to “the slowness of some entities in the sector in their acquisition.” El Toque reported, for its part, that “the import of condoms has been affected by the U.S. blockade.” A similar problem exists with menstrual hygiene products.
The feminist slogan reads: “sex education to decide, contraceptives to not abort and legal abortion to not die.” Regarding two of the three issues, in Cuba, we need to work conscientiously, urgently and without delay.
- For specific policies for the trans population, rural, racialized and internal migrant women
Woman, in the singular, does not exist. We women exist, diverse. Policies and work for equity need to recognize that diversity and the ways in which that diversity turns into inequality. Latin American women have never been so unequal among us as at this time.
In Cuba, we know that gender inequality intersects with others: racial, gender identity, territorial, age, socioeconomic status. It is essential to consider it for the actions that intervene in the inequality that indeed exists. That the Gender Inequality Index is higher in the eastern Cuban zone, more rural and with a black and mestizo population, affirms this fact.
The possibility of a trans job quota and other affirmative action policies are vital. The priority of credits and land for rural women or incentives for their undertakings could be on the agenda. The effective implementation of policies against racial discrimination, too. Their voice is vital in decision-making spaces and the media.
- For same-sex marriage, diverse families and against religious fundamentalisms
One of Cuba’s upcoming great challenges is that of the Family Code referendum. It is the only regulation, of the 107 that are under modification or creation, that will have to go through that process. That was the result of a high-intensity dispute where religious and non-religious neo-conservatism showed a strong pulse.
The means of communication of the State and institutions of different types are doing systematic work to make visible the rights of LGTBIQ+ people and to support a Diverse Family Code. Civil society organizations that defend rights, religious and non-religious, are also working in a convergent sense and actively monitoring exclusive content on state television. At the same time, the neo-conservatives are doing their thing and are expanding.
The recognition of diverse families and the approval of same-sex marriages have to be a fact. For now, this referendum scheduled for 2021 was postponed and there is no new set date. The convergence between institutional and non-institutional collective voices on the need for an inclusive Code needs to be verified without further delay. Also a clearer and more far-reaching work against the influence of religious neo-conservatisms.
- For a Comprehensive Law against gender-based violence and public policies that ensure its compliance
Gender-based violence is the feminist field that has had the most development in recent years and in Cuban public spheres. The publication in 2019 of the first number of feminicides in the country (corresponding to 2016), allowed comparative exercises that made possible the dimensioning of the problem in Cuba, as well as qualitative analyzes of the internal dynamics and the possibilities of intervention in the problem. The aforementioned Survey on Gender Equality also contributed much in this regard.
Work on the issue had been going on for decades in feminist activism and in institutional spaces, but it did not have the presence that it has today. There has been a notable diversification of actors working on the problem and this has been key to its recognition and visibility, which has even reached the presidential speech.
On the institutional side, there have been important announcements that should ensure progress in the fight against sexist violence in a broad sense. The Constitution, with its article 43, committed the State to this. The Federation of Cuban Women, in other institutional alliances, announced a Comprehensive Strategy for the prevention and attention to gender-based violence. There was also news of a telephone line for attention to these cases and a guide was recently published for those who follow the orientation. In recent days, the FMC announced that a Gender Observatory would be developed to unify information on violence. They have also begun to talk about respectful childbirth, in response to a greater debate on obstetric violence; an issue that will be included in the new Public Health Law and that has gained public attention. State media give space to columns on gender issues. At the end of 2020, the official website of Parliament affirmed that “confronting gender-based violence is a priority for the Cuban State.”
On the civil society side, the issue has gained weight. In 2019, forty Cuban women presented a Request for a Comprehensive Law against gender-based violence to the National Assembly of People’s Power, which was rejected. Individual and collective voices continue to contribute for its inclusion in the legislative schedule. Also from civil society, the Platform of support and accompaniment to women in situations of sexist violence in Cuba Yo Sí Te Creo, inaugurated the Observatory of Feminicides that verified 27 feminicides and 3 associated events in 2020 and in 2021 it already has eight. The figure under-records the reality, which must be higher. Independent media have opened specific coverage or maintain columns for discussions on gender.
Finally, the intersection between political violence and gender-based violence has gained visibility from different fronts. Women’s official voices have denounced attacks in this regard. Women from civil society, opponents of the government or not, have presented complaints in the same registry, alleging violent treatment of access to the body during police arrests. Thus, the language of political violence and its intersections with gender-based violence is part of the public conversation, so it is to be expected that any regulation, strategy or policy on gender-based violence will also include that dimension.
The state press recently announced the approval of presidential decree 198, corresponding to the Program for the Advancement of Women. We already know that this program includes seven central themes, some of which respond to various points of the previous program. Its content, form and deadlines should be able to be analyzed and accompanied by all possible feminist voices committed to comprehensive justice.
- For a diverse feminist organizational space
No social struggle is the monopoly of a single actor. Feminisms, even less. At the same time, those who participate in the public space are transformed in this exercise, because citizen participation produces politics and eventually transforms the actors in course; sometimes for the better, sometimes not.
Today, one of the enormous challenges of the Cuban feminist field and/or women’s organizations is to produce political dialogues. It is a difficult but essential exercise: to list the possible confluences and, also, to discover the antagonisms, the incompatibilities. But that has to be the result of a process and not a starting point. Dismissing all or a good part of the non-institutional feminist efforts without true or reasoned argument is a crass error, as well as aspiring to intervene in the order of things outside of institutional life. Producing a flawed policy defined by an order of “us” and the “others” without having taken the previous steps that include, for example, debating the issues listed above, is certain death. The instrumental vision of political action expressed by the definition of adversaries is the complete opposite of feminist grammar.
Feminisms are an actor of justice. And justice is a trinity: redistribution, recognition and participation in public life.
Doing so means facing risks and powerful walls. At this time, one of the most worrying is the instrumentalization of the feminist struggle by actors, of different ideological signs, who say little or can say little, contribute little or can contribute little, and do and can do a lot of damage to the struggle against inequalities and injustice.
All the issues listed above, which make up a minimal, incomplete, contextual, and argued statement of Cuban women’s needs, require being subjected to criticism, collective construction, feeding or purifying it. Doing so is key for Cuba, for Cuban women. A socialist program, as history has shown, cannot be oblivious or superficial or slow with these problems. If women go on strike, the world stops all the worlds, also the Cuban world.