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CUBA: Popular Education Transforms Women’s Lives

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Nov 19 2007 (IPS) - “I have the spirit of a 15-year-old girl, and the wisdom of a 66-year-old woman,” says Felicia Pérez, who recovered her joie de vivre after attending a handicrafts course, and became a promoter of urban values and the creator of a crafts workshop in her own neighbourhood.

Pérez’s story testifies to the impact that experiences of popular education have on the daily lives of Cuban women, whose potential for self-realisation is often curbed by the dominant “machismo” or who are belittled if they devote themselves to homemaking work.

“Popular education taught me that every person has knowledge, and deserves respect,” Pérez told IPS. “I learned that everyone has value, and now I don’t feel inferior because I’m a homemaker.”

This Cuban woman, who lives in the city of Guantánamo, 930 kilometres east of Havana, has brought together a group of women through the handicrafts classes she teaches. The members of the group all live in the same neighbourhood, are past retirement age, and have always done domestic work, or felt that their lives were over when they retired from their jobs.

It is estimated that over one million women work exclusively as homemakers in this Caribbean island nation of 11.2 million people.

The 2002 population and household census found that 97 percent of those who gave their occupation as “homemaker” were women. Most of them had low levels of education.

In the small workshop space created by Pérez, far away from the traditional environment of the home, this group of women talk about subjects related to health, sexuality, the family, and the history of their city, which was founded in 1796.

The group is part of the Celia project, started in 2003 by the governmental Group for Integral Development (GDI) of the City of Guantánamo, which aims to stimulate women’s participation in improving living conditions in the city.

Initially the project targeted the low-income neighbourhood of La Caoba, which was a red light district before the 1959 revolution. Social problems such as juvenile delinquency, drug use and a high level of unemployment among women still persist, Sandra Prieto, an official with the GDI, told IPS.

“We started meeting in the courtyards and corridors, without any materials at all,” Prieto said. With the help of local artisans, they held the first craft workshops, in order to “attract women and talk to them about the city and its history, so as to foster a sense of belonging.”

The goal of the Celia project is to roll back the “lack of knowledge about architectural treasures and the lack of citizen and urban culture,” said Prieto, who commented on the impact this lack of appreciation has on migration, which increased sharply after the economic crisis that began in the 1990s.

Contact with the Popular Education and Participating in Local Experiences Programme at the non-governmental Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Centre (CMMLK) led the GDI to use popular education methods and tools, which are “essential to working in the community, and to connecting with people where they are,” said Prieto.

Pérez and Prieto, along with another 200 people, mostly women, took part in the first national meeting of the Network of Popular Educators, held Nov. 12-16 in the town of Caimito, 20 kilometres west of Havana.

“Popular education raises people’s awareness of their identity and the love of what is ours, while it helps us express who we are, ethical values, and the principles of our socialist society,” Yolanda Brito, from the Limón Limonero community project in Jagüey Grande, about 150 kilometres southeast of Havana, told IPS.

“This approach is not the one true way, but it is one of the ways that can work effectively, like a grain of sand in the building of better things for our country,” said Brito, who works in the municipal library in Jagüey Grande.

Popular education ideas that she came across in the CMMLK courses also sparked a radical change in the family and working life of Iluminada Brizuela, who is involved in the Dorca workshop in the informal settlement of Las Tamaras, near the city of Bayamo, 730 kilometres east of the Cuban capital.

“I’m a different person, my self-esteem is much higher, and the way I communicate with other people has changed,” Brizuela told IPS. “Before, if my husband told me not to go out to the government food store, I wouldn’t go. Now, he washes the clothes, irons, cooks and looks after our daughter.”

Brizuela, 44, belongs to what is known as the “sandwich generation” of about one million women, who had to look after their ageing parents and raise their children, as well as take on other family and professional responsibilities, carrying a double burden because of the machista culture.

However, she has managed to cope with the demands of her job as a local coordinator of Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, the largest community-based political organisation in Cuba, as well as her work in the Dorca workshop, where she cuts cloth and sews garments together with nine other women, and her homemaking duties.

The Dorca project was started with a donation of sewing machines and dressmaking materials from the Cuban Council of Churches, an association of different Christian denominations in the country. Members sew clothing and other textile products to alleviate the needs of people on low incomes, pensioners and single mothers.

“There are lots of people who are very happy when you give them an outfit,” said Brizuela. In her view, the benefits of the workshop in this community of just over 1,000 people are considerable, especially for those who cannot afford to buy the products sold in the government’s chain of “dollar” stores, which only accept hard currency.

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