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Young Cubans Take a Critical Look at Fatherhood

A father and son in a Havana street. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños /IPS

HAVANA, Jan 16 2013 (IPS) - While more and more young men in Cuba today are rising above cultural prejudices that condition their role as fathers, many continue to conform to traditional styles of fatherhood, often reproducing negative patterns of neglect and abandonment, with serious repercussions for the whole family in light of the country’s economic and legal situation.

“Many take fatherhood seriously and come to it with a different attitude, but others don’t. The way I see it, it depends on the social environment they move in, their age, and whether the pregnancy was planned or not,” says Raynol Pérez, a young 24-year-old father who is home to put his small daughter Vanesa to bed every night.

In his opinion, the pregnancy is a critical period.

“The future father’s involvement or lack of involvement during the pregnancy is an indication of how he will behave when the baby is born,” he tells IPS.

“A good way to measure this is by the number of pregnant women who go to their medical check-ups with a man. There’s still only very few men who accompany their partners to their appointments,” this young married man, whose daughter was born when he was studying law at Havana University, says.

In a 2011 article on the role of fathers in Cuban families (published in Spanish under the title “Una mirada del ejercicio de la paternidad en familias cubanas”), psychologist Anais Ángela Chapelli revealed that the issue has for the most part not been addressed from a male perspective in studies conducted on the subject in this Caribbean island.

Chapelli notes that more information is needed on how men view fatherhood and on their experiences as fathers.

There have been changes in the way fatherhood is experienced and viewed, which have been brought on by the erosion of the patriarchal system through the advancement of women’s rights, as well as by a number of increasingly widespread phenomena, such as civil unions, migration, unwed mothers, divorces, same-sex unions, blended families, and single-parent households headed by men.

However, over half a century of public policies aimed at improving the situation of women have failed to eradicate Cuba’s deep-rooted sexist culture, with strong stereotypes still dictating how fathers and mothers are expected to behave. Moreover, while there are many social efforts made to bring about change among women, very little is done to promote a similar change in men.

But sociologist Magela Romero and other young experts on the subject have observed a growing trend in Cuban families, as more and more the role of ‘provider’ – economic or otherwise – is no longer seen as an exclusively male obligation, and men are in turn more involved in domestic life and new forms of fatherhood.

But these experts also note that fatherhood still takes a backseat to motherhood.

University student Emanuel George told IPS that the view that a father’s role is limited to that of “economic and material provider” is a firmly entrenched stereotype. Popular sayings such as “Anyone can be your father, but you have only one mother” perpetuate this image, George says.

Lourdes Pasalodos, a journalist, has delved further in the issue. Her book “En el nombre del hijo” (In the name of the son), published in 2009, openly addresses fatherhood problems such as abandonment and neglect, approaching them from a common-sense perspective.

“This affects both men and women,” Pasalodos told IPS. In her opinion, “the presence of men in the home has become less important” as a result of the high rate of male emigration in the 1990s and a sexist culture that is still going strong and “pushes men away from the home”, among other factors.

“Once they’re divorced or separated, many fathers forget their obligations to their children, causing them psychological, emotional, and financial harm,” she said. The period from 2010 to 2011 saw a slight increase in the annual rate of marriages, and while the rate of divorces has dropped, it remains high.

However, the last fertility study, which was conducted in 2009 by the National Bureau of Statistics and Information, revealed that young couples choose a civil union over marriage, and that “they see marriage differently” from previous generations, as they no longer view it as a necessary step before sexual relations or as a precondition to having children.

Pasalodos believes a cultural and educational change is needed. “Many live as a family but are never home and leave their children’s care to the mother of their children,” she says.

“We need to bring our education in line with the times and start teaching elementary school children about both the roles of mothers and fathers, and how to change a diaper, for example, among other parenting skills,” she suggests.

This cultural gap may explain why the legal progress made in terms of gender equality in recent years has had little impact. As of 2007, only 17 fathers had applied to fully enjoy their right to care for or share in the care of their children during their first year of life, as provided under Decree Law No. 234, passed in 2003.

Official sources say the situation has not changed much since then.

This legal measure was promoted by the non-governmental organisation Federación de Mujeres Cubanas (Federation of Cuban Women or FMC) with the aim of guaranteeing the right of working fathers to take a year off work to care for their infant children in the event of the death or abandonment of the children’s mother, and to a six-month leave to take over for the mother once the exclusive breastfeeding period is over.

A 25-year-old biologist from the southern coastal city of Cienfuegos, located 232 kilometres from Havana, observes that when a couple splits up, the father’s relationship with their children changes, as the children usually stay with the mother.

According to this young professional who asked to remain anonymous, the change in how a father behaves towards his children after a separation is so common that people often talk of fathers also “divorcing their kids.”

“I’m not just saying this because that’s how it was with me and my daughter. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of people I know,” the biologist, who works at a government research centre, told IPS in a telephone interview. In her opinion, it all comes down to the father’s sense of responsibility.

She also believes that the Code of Family Law, which is from 1975, “is very outdated and its provisions are too general.”

When she separated she pored over those regulations, which she says, “talk about everything but specify nothing”, and in the end filed a legal complaint to obtain court-ordered child support from her ex-husband and to settle custody issues. “I was lucky because my lawyer has handled many cases like mine and the judge put my little girl’s well-being first,” she says.

“We were able to get more child support than what is usually granted and the judge ruled that my ex would only be able to have our baby overnight after she was no longer breastfeeding,” she adds. But “the money he has to send me every month doesn’t even cover half of what I need to support her,” and “unless he comes to see her he forgets about her and doesn’t worry about how she’s doing,” she complains.

While very much ahead of its time in child protection and gender equality issues, the Code of Family Law needs to be revised and amended to reflect the current situation of Cuban families, activists say. FMC and Cuba’s National Union of Jurists worked together on a new draft code and presented it to parliament several years ago, but legislators have yet to discuss it.


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