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CUBA: Women’s Department Draws Attention to Inequality

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Oct 12 2011 (IPS) - Continuing its mission to promote gender studies and use academia to demonstrate the inequalities between women and men in Cuba, the Women’s Studies Department is celebrating 20 years of work with new challenges in terms of researching and drawing attention to the disadvantages faced by the female population.

“We have to take a critical approach to reality to see the inequalities that persist and those that are emerging in today’s new scenarios. The patriarchy reproduces itself and is difficult to change,” Norma Vasallo, president of the Women’s Studies Department at the University of Havana, told IPS. She said she still sees a long road ahead.

“The current ‘updating’ of the economic model in the country could have repercussions on the development that women have achieved,” Vasallo, a psychologist, said, commenting on one of the principal challenges faced by women’s studies in the context of the economic changes ushered in by the Raúl Castro government.

Cuban women hold 42.7 percent of public sector jobs, according to the National Office of Statistics.

But since the government announced massive lay-offs of public employees last year, which were to potentially affect one million people by the end of 2011, an expansion of self-employment and areas like agriculture and construction that are not traditionally seen as the domain of women has been expected to absorb the hundreds of thousands of employees slashed from the public workforce.

Women make up about 69,000 of the more than 300,000 people with small private businesses, the labour and social security deputy minister, José Barreiro, told the Cuban parliament in late July. However, women tend to be concentrated in low-income activities or as the employees of these businesses, and rarely as the owners.

The agriculture sector shows similar figures. In the interest of increasing the presence of women, and not just as subordinates, the nongovernmental National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) and the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) are aiming to reach a total of 100,000 women in diverse jobs in the cooperative sector by the end of 2011.

Another pending issue for academia is the area of women and health, a concern that has not caught on among the medical personnel of this Caribbean island nation, Vasallo said. Moreover, progress is needed in the areas of law and communication, and in legitimising “problems that are not yet recognised by society, such as gender-based violence,” she added.

Since it was created in September 1991, the department has brought together researchers, above all, from the University of Havana’s 17 departments, including psychology, sociology, philosophy and philology. Their efforts have been joined by the activities of other entities, such as the FMC and the Oscar Arnulfo Romero Reflection and Solidarity Group.

“Since the late 1980s, a marked interest has resurfaced among women academics in having an association,” noted writer Luisa Campusano during a gathering of the department’s founders in September. “When the economic crisis was forecast, the need to research women’s issues became stronger,” she explained.

Sociologist Marta Núñez said this interest was related to “the ideological position, in this case of women researchers, that women suffer disadvantages such as the double workday, at work and at home.” Cuban women devote an average of 34 hours a week to domestic work, while men only spend about 12 hours on supportive tasks, studies show.

Before the department was founded, demographer Sonia Catasús, sociologists Niurka Pérez and Elena Díaz, psychologist Irene Smith, Núñez and Campusano, among others, individually conducted research in what is now known as “gender studies,” in their different institutions and nongovernmental organisations.

In the early 1980s, the first articles appeared on women construction workers, women farmers and women brick-makers, in addition to subjects like literature, fertility and feminism. Some of the outstanding work focused on Cuban women in two textile factories, the Ariguanabo (1986-1988) and the Celia Sánchez (1986-1987).

Women’s studies began appearing in Cuba at least 15 years after their peak in Latin America, Vasallo says regretfully. In 1989, since the emergence of the Women’s and Family Studies Department at the Villa Clara Teachers’ Institute, located about 360 kilometres east of Havana, these academic spaces for women’s studies became official and are now expanding.

In 1988, a group of teachers presented a request to create the women’s studies department to the vice-chancellor’s office of the University of Havana, but it did not happen until 1991, Elena Díaz recalled. It was proposed then to encourage these studies in the country and to reflect on the needs and obstacles faced by the female population.

“We were able to promote human resource training through continuing education courses and local, national and international conferences,” Vasallo said about the work of the group led until 1997 by psychologist Albertina Mitjans.

That is how the biannual international workshop Women in the 21st Century arose in 1995, and as of its 2011 edition, participation continued to grow, including the number of papers presented, from all 15 Cuban provinces, and it was expanded to include other issues within women’s studies, such as violence, masculinity and race.

In 2005, a master’s programme in Gender Studies was created. It is the only one of its kind in the country, and the third of five editions was offered at the University of Holguín, 689 kilometres east of Havana, with financial support from Oxfam International.

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