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Cuba May Be the Most Feminist Country in Latin America

By Luisita López Torregrosa

1st May 2012

NEW YORK — Cuba may just be the most feminist country in Latin America.  It ranks No. 3 in the world when it comes to the political participation of women in Parliament, according to a United Nations survey on women in politics. And it’s the only nation in Latin America to rank in the top 20 in the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2011.

The Female Factor

Examining the role and impact of women in society

In sheer numbers and percentages, Cuban women’s advance is notable. Cuba has a high number of female professional and technical workers (60 percent of the total work force in those areas) and in Parliament (43 percent), as well as high levels of primary, secondary and tertiary education enrollment, according to the Gender Gap report.

In contrast, Brazil, the region’s economic behemoth, ranks 82nd overall in the world, according to the report, though it moved up three places last year with improvements in women’s wages, estimated earned income and the election of a female head of state, President Dilma Rouseff.

What explains Cuba’s record?

Sarah Stephens, the director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a Washington-based advocacy and research organization that focuses on Cuba and U.S.-Cuba relations and opposes the U.S. embargo, is working on a report on the status of women in Cuba. “Cuban women tell us that they feel lucky to have come of age since 1959,” she says. “Before 1959, women comprised only 5 percent of university graduates and only 12 percent of the work force, often holding menial jobs.”

Today, she says, women make up 41 percent of the Communist Party, half of the island’s work force, the majority of students in high schools and universities, 60 percent of university faculties and the majority of provosts and department heads (but not presidents). And women hold top portfolios in ministries and in key provincial positions.

“Fidel Castro called for women’s rights as a ‘revolution within a revolution’ and this commitment became tangible through changes in legislation and policy,” Ms. Stephens says.

But, that said, “women within the system argue strongly for what remains to be done, and they criticize the gaps between rhetoric and practice,” Ms. Stephens says. “Women speak to us about a ‘gender paradox’ in Cuba — a nation legally committed to equality but harnessed to a historic structure of patriarchy.”

Going forward, in the more market-oriented economic restructuring that will lay off thousands of state workers, women fear they will lose their jobs and will not find non-state employment in jobs traditionally held by men, Ms. Stephens says.

“Women also worry that the aging of Cuba’s population will increase family burdens, and hence women’s burdens,” she says. “As the reforms to the economic model take place, and Cuba stops, for example, lunch programs at work, more food will need to be prepared at home, and that will land on women.”

Politically, there’s a glass ceiling, Ms. Stephens says. “It’s evident by looking at Cuba’s most senior leadership around President Raúl Castro.”

My Page Two column shows how women’s advances across Latin America are surpassing the United States and matching Europe.

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