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CUBA: What Schools Can and Cannot Do for Equality

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Jul 15 2009 (IPS) - They are sisters, just two years apart, and had the same upbringing and education, but they have completely different aspirations. While Ana, the younger, dreams of going to university and following a professional career, Marlén is only interested in boyfriends, getting married and living happily and quietly at home.

“They may change over time, but we noticed the differences between them since they were born. They have always been different, and will continue to be so. Ultimately what’s important is that they have had the same opportunities, and can each choose their own path,” their father, 42-year-old Raúl Gómez, told IPS.

Their mother, Alina Suárez, 37, says her daughters are a reflection of modern times. “When I was young we all wanted to go to university, and most of us did. Now things are different. Among this generation there are girls who don’t want to carry on studying, and some who don’t want to work, either,” she said.

“They dream of finding a successful man who can support them. Perhaps they are the exception, but they do exist, and I can’t say whether it’s an effect of the economic crisis we have experienced in Cuba since the 1990s, or of the ‘machista’, sexist culture that we’re force-fed in soap operas, films and videos, as if by intravenous drip.”

The family, made up of a professional couple, a 67-year-old grandmother and the two girls, 11 and 13, live in a central Havana neighbourhood.

Education in Cuba is mandatory up to ninth grade, and the public school system covers the entire country, even the remotest rural areas.

With independence and practicality, 19-year-old Adriana de la Nuez surprised more than a few people when she announced last year she was transferring from the institute of higher education where she was studying to a trades school. “I want to work on restoration. It’s what I like, and afterwards, well, who knows?” she told IPS.

Unlike Marlén, Adriana doesn’t want to be dependent on anyone. “I learned that at home, ever since I was very little,” she said.

Cuban society today reflects the impact of educational policies that nationalised private schools after the 1959 revolution, made education mandatory for girls and boys, and promoted women’s access to higher education.

This island nation already had strong educational indicators in the 1950s, and the priority accorded education over the past 50 years has led to the present situation in which over 99 percent of Cuban children complete their primary schooling.

Gender disparities in education have been eliminated. There is parity at primary school level, and matriculation of girls is greater than that of boys at secondary and tertiary levels, says the 2005 Second Report on the fulfilment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in Cuba.

The third of the eight MDGs adopted in 2000 by the United Nations member states – to promote gender equality and empower women – seeks to eliminate gender inequality in primary and secondary education, “preferably” by 2005, and at all levels of education by 2015.

Parity in education is regarded as one of the main indicators of gender equality and the empowerment of women. Others include women’s access to paid employment in the non-agricultural sector, and the proportion of seats occupied by women in national parliaments.

U.N. reports indicate that the net enrolment ratio in primary education in Latin America and the Caribbean rose from 87 percent in 1990 to 95 percent in 2007. At secondary level, more girls than boys are attending school, and the trend in the region’s universities is also towards a majority of women students.

“Investing in girls’ education delivers well-known returns. When girls are educated, they are more likely to earn higher wages and obtain better jobs,” says a message from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on World Population Day, celebrated Jul. 11.

Statistics presented at a ceremony to mark World Population Day in Cuba indicate that women represent 46 percent of the labour force in the state civilian sector, hold 39 percent of decision-making posts and occupy 43 percent of seats in parliament.

According to Mayda Álvarez, head of the Women’s Studies Centre (CEM), one of the contradictions in today’s movement for women’s autonomy is “the distance that still exists between many people’s ideals of equality, and their inequitable practices, especially in the family and other places where socialisation occurs.”

A critical view

But Cuba’s experience shows that guaranteeing access to education is only a good starting point for creating gender equality. “That access in itself only lays a foundation,” Susan McDade, resident coordinator of U.N. agencies in Cuba, told IPS.

While Cuban women may be empowered in terms of education and employment, McDade pointed out that they are already being affected by the ageing of the country’s population, which burdens them not only with the care of children and grandchildren but also of the elderly.

As agents of change, “mothers should educate their children from a young age to understand the contribution they should make to the family when they grow up. Girls, wives and mothers are not the only ones who can look after the house and the family, and learning that everyone should do a fair share is a very long process,” she said.

Laws providing for jobs and equal wages for equal work are not automatic guarantees of change, either. Studies carried out in Cuba show that, in spite of all the legal guarantees, men still hold the better-paying jobs, especially in newer sectors of the economy with access to hard currency.

It has also been found that, with rare exceptions, schools actually reinforce sexist attitudes and behaviours and legitimise gender inequity. Women act with independence in the public sphere, but reproduce subordination in the private domain, and they have considerably less free time than men.

Although the Cuban constitution guarantees equality between men and women, the reality is much more complex. Doors in this country open differently for black people than for white, for those who live in Havana than for people in rural areas, and for established residents in the cities than for rural migrants.

“It’s harder to carry on studying in certain regions of the country that are far away from the cities, when your family has economic difficulties and getting a paid job is important, or when you grow up in marginalised conditions,” said Sonia Valdés, a 32-year-old engineer.

“We are a black family. Before the revolution we lived in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Havana and we still live in the same place. Marginalisation tends to reproduce itself and it isn’t always easy to break out of,” said Valdés, the only one of four children to graduate from university.

Valdés has a teenage daughter who is a boarder at one of the university prep schools the government provides in rural areas. She is uncertain in her own mind what would be best for her daughter, “continuing to study far away from her family and away from this environment, or living with me, where I can influence her and she would have all the cultural advantages that the city offers.”

According to Norma Vasallo, chair of Women’s Studies at the University of Havana, education is only a foundation. “Education should provide the tools to develop independent thinking so that people can take a critical view of their reality, and be self-critical as well,” she told IPS.

Education is more than learning reading, writing and arithmetic and a collection of facts about the subjects taught. Even going to university does not lead automatically to changed attitudes in daily life, although it can contribute, she said.

“A critical awareness of reality is needed in order to transform it, and men need this as well as women. Sometimes women don’t even realise that they are being discriminated against when they are passed over for promotion in the workplace, or for work-related travel,” Vasallo said.

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