Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CUBA: Violence against Women Out of the Closet

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Nov 24 2011 (IPS) - The story of Saúl, a violent husband, and Odalys, an abused wife, has been on Cuban TV screens for several weeks now, bringing the touchy and often silenced issue of violence against women into millions of homes. It may cause shock or repulsion, but few can escape the controversy or discussion.

“Making this issue visible is this soap opera’s great contribution,” Danae C. Diéguez, an expert on gender and film, told IPS. The soap, “Bajo el mismo sol” (Under the Same Sun), is divided into three seasons, each with its own story line, and Part II (called “Soledad” or Loneliness/Solitude) addresses the loneliness that people can feel even if they are not alone.

Saúl and Odalys have more than just a bad marriage: in their relationship, hitting has replaced dialogue. The tall, burly husband beats his wife, who gradually leaves behind her passive vulnerability and starts to react, with the help of a friend.

“I don’t understand how you can put up with so much,” people have remarked to actress Tamara Castellanos, who plays Odalys.

“People who say that have never been in that kind of situation,” commented Magaly, a 70-year-old woman who admitted to IPS that she had suffered continuous abuse from her husband. “I was saved by the fact that he decided to leave the country. At least Odalys has hit back sometimes at her husband. I never dared to do that; what I did was prevent him from hitting my face.”

“If it was me, I would have kicked him out of the house a long time ago,” stated Dunia Piquera, 35, who has been married for 14 years. “The soap is good, because it shows reality” and has many messages for society, she said. “Although it’s true, people don’t always learn, and they keep making the same mistakes,” she told IPS.

Perhaps like no other Cuban soap opera, the most popular type of TV programme in this country of 11.2 million, “Soledad” – especially the case of Odalys – is stirring debate inside and outside the home. Nobody remembers that it is fiction when they start talking about it, as they wait in line for the bus, at the bakery, or to pay the phone bill.

For Castellanos, it was a “searing” experience, but it also helped her to “mature” and to see life from another perspective, she says. “We have taken the first step; the wall of silence has come down, because there are a lot of people in that situation. I hope they can all get past that barrier and find the help they need,” she said during a conference organised by the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC).

According to Diéguez, this soap is the first television programme in Cuba to address the “cycle of violence” – a theory formulated by U.S. anthropologist Lenore Walker (The Battered Women, 1979) that explains the behaviour of some women abused by their spouses, especially about why the victim goes back to her attacker.

The cycle begins with the honeymoon phase, then moves on to the tension-building phase. This is followed by the acting out phase, which leads to remorse and a return to the honeymoon phase, when the aggressor is once again kind and affectionate and promises to change.

The woman believes him and agrees to give him another chance. After several repetitions of the cycle, the stage of remorse and pleas for forgiveness becomes shorter and shorter and then disappears. What remains is tension and violent explosions.

“Soledad” coincided recently with the National Campaign for Non-Violence, co-ordinated for the fifth consecutive year by a nongovernmental organisation, the Oscar Arnulfo Romero Reflection and Solidarity Group (OAR), with the purpose of reflecting on, making visible and dehumanising gender-based violence, and getting both men and women involved.

The campaign, set to run from Nov. 25 – International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – to Dec. 9, includes community projects and government institutions, and is complemented by other parallel initiatives, organised by the National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX), the Iberian-American Network on Masculinities, and United Nations agencies on the island.

In a workshop held at the OAR this week, community activists talked about the need for a help line to support women who are victims of gender-based violence. Apparently, the authorities will analyse the possible implementation of this kind of system; hot lines already exist for calling in consultations about AIDS or drugs.

The nongovernmental FMC has 175 women and family guidance centres nationwide, which provide support to victims of abuse. However, experts say their impact is not the same everywhere, either because of a lack of qualified staff or because few people know about their work.

Since 1997, the FMC, whose membership includes the majority of Cuban women over the age of 14, has been co-ordinating the National Working Group for the Prevention of and Attention to Domestic Violence. This group, comprising various government agencies, is considered an official recognition of domestic violence as a social problem in Cuba.

In any case, gender-based violence has tended to be silenced or minimised in Cuba, in the government-controlled media as well as other official spaces.

But this situation could change, since the issue has been included in the central document to be discussed at the governing Communist Party’s upcoming national conference, set for January 2012.

The Cuban constitution and many of the country’s laws guarantee women’s equality and protect the family, but abuse that happens within the home is not always reported, nor is it reflected in the statistics. The experts say a law against gender-based violence is what is needed, not just the improvement of existing legislation.

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