Independent Women’s Groups Say 2019 Year of Progress in Cuba

Dec 16, 2019
1:18 PM

In this Monday, December 9, 2019 photo, a billboard reads in Spanish “Evolve. Campaign against violence against women. Harassment sets you back,” is displayed on a street of Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco)

By ANDREA RODRÍGUEZ, Associated Press

HAVANA (AP) — For 60 years, Cuba’s communist government has monopolized virtually every aspect of life on the island, including dozens of state-controlled organizations that serve as official advocates for groups ranging from LGBT people to animal lovers.

This year, one aspect of that state monopoly has begun to loosen, with the growth of tiny but active independent civil society groups pressuring the government for better protections.

As 2019 comes to a close, one of the most important of those new civil society causes is women’s rights. Women loosely organizing over Cuba’s year-old mobile internet have pushed the government for new protections against domestic abuse, and are publishing statistics on gender-motivated killings for the first time.

An online campaign brought international attention to the cases of Cuban women claiming assault and harassment by partners and co-workers. For example, a singer known as the Goddess of Cuba said she suffered long-term abuse at the hands of a partner and fellow performer.

They are small advances compared to the high-profile women’s rights movements in other Latin American countries. But Cuban women say any independent action is important in a country that has long claimed that its socialist revolution eliminated most institutionalized prejudice and other social problems.

After the victory of Fidel Castro’s rebel army in 1959, Cuba made abortion free and legal, granted a year of paid maternity leave, created free universal childcare and mandated equal pay for all.

Independent women’s activists say women remain underrepresented in high-ranking jobs and suffer street harassment and domestic abuse without sufficient public resources dedicated to the problem.

“In the first years of the revolution, Cuba passed laws that favored women, but left untouched many things that persist as part of the patriarchal culture,” said activist Marta María Ramírez. “They’re achievements that we have to update.”

Ramírez and hundreds of other women sent a petition demanding a law against gender violence to the National Assembly last month. It bore the signatures of 700 people, including singer/songwriter Haydée Milanés.

The signature-gathering took place without the participation of the Federation of Cuban Women, the government-endorsed group representing women’s interests on the island.

“There’s a lot to do. There’s a great need to make people conscious of the issues,” Milanés told The Associated Press. “Cuba has a very macho society.”

Ramírez said petition-signers were told by government officials that state agencies have begun to prepare legislation in response.

Mariela Castro, daughter of Communist Party leader and former president Raúl Castro, and the head of the government-run center for gay rights, publicly denied several years ago that Cuba had any killings, or femicides, resulting from gender-motivated crimes like sexual assault or domestic violence.

After months of campaigning by women’s rights activists, including online campaigns denouncing the murders of at least four women, Cuba this year recognized for the first time that the country had gender-motivated killings. Activists say the government’s figures for gender killings are too low because they only include domestic-violence related crimes, and exclude sex crimes.

Cuban authorities also released figures on domestic violence for the first time, saying 26.6% of women had been victimized over the previous 12 months and fewer than 4% of those had sought help.

In late 2018, Cuba created special legal offices for victims of domestic violence, a move that activists called a small but insufficient step toward better helping victims.

“The authorities think that things have to keep coming down from on high,” said Sandra Abd’Allah-Alvarez, a 46-year-old psychologist, blogger and women’s rights activist. “No society keeps going just because of institutions. There has to be volunteerism and activism in order for things to move forward.”