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CUBA: Women Knitting for Change

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Feb 5 2010 (IPS) - A neighbour started calling Andrea del Sol “Perseverance,” and the name stuck. Since 1998, she and a small group of women from Alamar, on the outskirts of the Cuban capital, have been throwing their combined energies behind a common purpose: “changing things.”

Women from East Alamar workshop working together on a banner.  Credit: José Luis Baños /IPS

Women from East Alamar workshop working together on a banner. Credit: José Luis Baños /IPS

They faced plenty of difficulties, such as finding a space where they could meet, creating a library and cleaning up the surroundings. But all these needs were easy to fill compared with the daily gender violence that is the norm in Cuba’s foremost dormitory town.

“People from more than 57 municipalities around the country live in my area. Everyone has their own customs, roots and religion, and this is something to bear in mind when conflict situations arise,” del Sol, who has lived in East Alamar for 20 years, told IPS.

“We live with naked physical aggression, and with secretive domestic violence. We have battered women, fathers who throw their sons or daughters out of the house, and parents who don’t pay their children enough attention. And increasingly, we are experiencing violence on the streets,” she said.

Row upon row of nearly identical prefabricated apartment blocks, corroded by salt from the sea air, stretch for kilometres. Only basic health and education services, some shops and a very few cultural, sports or recreation facilities break up the endless housing project with its unfinished look.

East Alamar, where del Sol lives, covers an area of nine square kilometres and is home to about 38,000 people. This figure does not include a large number of unregistered residents from the provinces, or other areas of Havana.

Del Sol is from the town of Santa Cruz del Sur, 570 kilometres southeast of Havana, and has a degree in pedagogical sciences from the former Soviet Union. She is the principal expert at the East Alamar Taller de Transformación Integral del Barrio (TTIB – Workshop for the Integral Transformation of the Neighbourhood), a subdivision within the municipal government.

Created in 1988 on the initiative of then president Fidel Castro, there are TTIBs in 20 Havana neighbourhoods with varied degrees of social risk. Their purpose is to promote the physical, social and environmental transformation of communities through the active participation of residents themselves.

Ariadne’s thread

It all started in the basement of a building where two women who knitted decided to share their skills with a few neighbours. The group grew spontaneously, and when the TTIB obtained space of its own, the weavers moved into the facility, where they now work. So began the project known ever since as “Ariadne’s Thread”.

In Greek mythology, Ariadne’s thread helped Theseus find his way out of the labyrinth after slaying the Minotaur. But in East Alamar the knitting group became the core of a range of activities that broadened into patchwork, macramé, papier maché, doll-making and painting.

A decade later, more than 100 women a year are taking the workshop’s courses. The knitters’ premises is also used for the neighbourhood University for Older Adults, a project for people over 60, and it works with children as part of the Mapa Verde (Green Map) environmental network. More than 200 residents have taken courses in leadership and community participation.

“People learn what participation really is, and they experience the opportunity of getting involved with their reality, making commitments and taking decisions,” said the community leader.

It was almost as a logical consequence of these developments that last year the workshop took on overall responsibility for making a collective banner against gender violence. Coordinated by the non-governmental Oscar Arnulfo Romero Reflection and Solidarity Group (OAR), the banner-making process involved people from four TTIBs across Havana.

The banner, five metres long by one metre wide, devised by designer José Ángel Lamas, depicts a Cuban flag covered with embroidered flowers, and a sun with a man and a woman at its centre, surrounded by a garden. Each TTIB undertook to make a part of it, and then it was all sewn together in East Alamar.

Ventura González, the artist who painted the garden on the banner, said that making it was a unique opportunity for craftmakers and artists to come together in a common creative task. “Perseverance” del Sol, for her part, highlighted the sense of group solidarity that arose from the project, and the value of working with people from “the other side of the city.”

“It was work that made use of our hands. We learned to join together for a positive purpose, and during the months we were working on it, volunteers from many places came to offer ideas and to cooperate with whatever was needed. The banner strengthened us,” she said.

Change from within the community

Since 2006, the East Alamar TTIB has participated in the programme of activities organised in Cuba for Nov. 25, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and it is also one of the Havana workshops that for years has taken part in an OAR awareness-raising programme on gender violence.

“Making violence unacceptable begins with each one of us, the men and women who are involved in the problem. The community plays an important role because that is where the people who want to take action for non-violence are,” Gabriel Coderch, general coordinator of OAR, told IPS.

With the same confidence in people’s ability to contribute to social change, the team at the East Alamar TTIB chose gender violence as one of their strategic work areas, and after a number of workshops they realised it was not enough to work with battered women, their partners or their families.

So they approached institutions, especially in the educational system. “We work with young teachers and also with very experienced teachers, because we realised we had to start with children’s games. Children have to learn to play without violence,” said del Sol.

“When we started, we thought that if women participated, that would be enough. In time we discovered that without men’s participation, we could do nothing, and that this project had to be dreamed up and devised by men and women together. Later on we understood we had to create spaces for specific groups, but also inter-generational ones,” she said.

The longer she works at promoting non-violence, the more del Sol feels that there is still much more to be done. “It’s like a lifelong mission,” she said.

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