March 8th is International Women’s Day.
It started more than a century ago to call attention to the struggles of women who worked as garment workers.
Now, it’s a global celebration; it still shines a spotlight on the harsh conditions that women confront, but also reminds us that making progress on women’s rights as human rights, equal access to economic opportunity and political power, will bring us closer to a more just world.
To join the celebration, our organization, the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), released this report, “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future.”
It examines progress made by Cuban women toward gender equality since the 1950s and discusses how that progress can be sustained in the future.
We published the report after two years of fact-finding, collaboration with Cuban and U.S. scholars, and four research trips to the island, during which we interviewed dozens of Cuban women who spoke candidly to us about their lives, their gripes, and their aspirations.
In it, you will hear the voice of Emilia, an auditor who speaks three languages. She says, “I was born in the Revolution. It has given me opportunities.” Mimi, an academic, who was told by a manager not to get married or have kids, discusses sexism in the workplace. Barbara, a small business woman, who tells us about the decision making, the ability to save money, and the feelings of independence that come from being her own boss.
The story in Cuba is really interesting and really complex. In the mid-1950s, the Cuban revolution made gender equality an important part of its political project. After coming to power, Cuba’s government acted on its commitments and began addressing widespread attitudes that held women and a lot of other Cubans back.
If you just look at the numbers, the progress is extraordinary. According to Save the Children, Cuba scores first among developing countries in maternal mortality, live births attended by health care personnel, female life expectancy at birth, and other factors. It has tripled the number of Cuban women who work. It has fulfilled the Millennium Development Goals for primary education, gender equality and reducing infant mortality.
These accomplishments are met with skepticism, even disbelief, by some in the U.S.; because Cuba has a tiny economy, it is not capitalist or rich and, by U.S. standards, it is not free.
But, it is also the case that these numbers don’t tell the full story.
Measured against key objectives of gender equality – do women have access to higher-paying jobs; can they achieve a fair division of labor at work and home; are they acceding to positions of real power in the communist party or government– Cuban women told us their country has a long way to go.
What about the future? To address its economic problems, Cuba is taking steps to update its economic model – for example, cutting state jobs, and reallocating spending on health and education programs – that propelled women forward. As Cuban scholars tell us, these actions could have real repercussions for women and gender equality.
So, the report concludes with recommendations about the role Cuban women can play in building their country’s future.
Because we believe that having a stable and prosperous Cuba ninety miles from our shores is in the national interest of the United States, our recommendations include steps the U.S. can take to signal its support for women and Cuba’s economic reforms writ large.
We are not alone in holding this view. As Jane Harman, who served in the U.S. House and who is director, president and chief executive of the Woodrow Wilson Center, told the New York Times: “Whether or not one favors major change in U.S. policy toward Cuba (which I personally do), shining light on the need to make Cuban women full partners in Cuba’s future is in everyone’s interest.”
You’d think the administration would agree. After all, President Obama released a statement for International Women’s Day saying “Empowering women isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do.”
But smart wouldn’t describe U.S. policy toward Cuba. As Dr. Cynthia McClintock at George Washington University says, “It’s a contradiction. Here’s a country which has been doing well at this (gender equality) but we don’t want to deal with it.”
After failing for so long, it’s time for the U.S. to engage with Cuba differently. If policymakers accepted Cubans’ humanity and ran U.S. foreign policy accordingly, we could support women, start repairing our relations with Cuba, and remove an irritant that has long divided us from the region. That is why we hope Congress and the Executive Branch really pay attention to what we report and recommend.
Happy International Women’s Day.