Economic Strategies and Social Policies Regarding Female Employment: 1 959-1 989

Cuba has been in permanent transition since 1959 toward a fairer society. Unlike other countries in Latin America in the late 1950s, Cuba explicitly incorporated social improvement into its economic development strategies (Perez Villanueva, 2008). Moreover, it did not reproduce the economic liberalization policies that were widespread in the region in the 1970s and led to the debt crises of the 1980s. Another unique feature in Cuba was its repertoire of social policies and poverty management; this was the most extensive of all developing countries, which mainly understood poverty as a social situation that had always existed and would always exist (Espina Prieto, 2007). Being among the poorest, women benefited from the very beginning from the strategies put in place to change the social relationships that conditioned poverty.

Creating "Spaces of Equality"

Throughout these first 30 years, practical decisions were taken as needed, and at times under extreme pressure, to solve short-term development problems that required immediate solutions. From the beginning, the economic approach to development was discarded and the economy was organized in such a way that the growth of the GDP fed the social policies that universalized education, health, social security, social welfare, culture, and sports—areas defined by the Cuban sociologist Mayra Espina Prieto (2007) as “spaces of equality”. These spaces are centrally designed by the state to implement activities that meet the population’s basic needs and benefit everyone; therefore, they are offered free of charge, universal access is endorsed by legislation, and access is facilitated where necessary. But such a political choice in terms of development policies demands enormous financial resources that are difficult to attain in a developing country such as Cuba.

The Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) was established in 1960 to channel the participation of women as agents of their own development. There was a clear understanding that specific actions would be needed to overcome discrimination against women and have them join society fully, and the Government and the FMC declared from the beginning that the country could not wait for economic growth before ensuring that women made progress. This political will led to the implementation of economic strategies specifically geared at woman’s equality as well as legal regulations, social policies, and actions mainly of an ideological nature to struggle against gender discrimination. A merely economic approach would have postponed these decisions and reduced the importance of women’s participation, and the possibility for women to be the agents of change from the start would have been lost. These policies have been subject to constant modification in accordance with the unfolding conditions and needs of Cuban women and Cuban society as a whole. I characterize this trend as a process taking place both “top-down” and “bottom-up.”

The spaces of equality were effective in breaking the cycle of reproducing inequalities in society and at home and were “feminized” almost immediately. Since discrimination had historically been exercised against women, the introduction of a lack of gender differentiation actually benefited them much more than men. For example, this was the case with the literacy campaign in 1961. Women made up 59 percent of the literacy teachers and 55 percent of those who learned to read and write (FMC, 1975). In just one year this helped inaugurate one of the most important spaces of equality: education. The nationalization of schools that took place that same year also favored the feminization of education because girls and young people became teachers and increasingly remained in the educational sector. Within 20 years, by 1980, girls outnumbered boys in enrolment and their attrition rate was much lower in grades 7 to 12.

Educational programs also included campaigns to help working adults advance their schooling, and by 1978 working women began to have higher educational levels than working men—5 percent of working women and 3.5 percent of working men were university graduates, while 23 percent of working women had a grade 12 level of education in comparison with 13 percent of working men (calculations made by the author from Comite Estatal de Estadlsticas, 1988). This had an impact on their labor performance since it enabled women to be promoted in their jobs toward more complex and better-paid occupations. The nationalization of education in 1961 provided mothers with a feeling of security, because their children were guaranteed free and universal education from primary school through to university. The provision of lunch in primary schools, together with a double school session led by teachers’ aides, contributed to allowing women with children to keep their jobs. The first day-care centers (and schools to train staff for such centers) were established in 1961, followed by the setting up of kindergartens in the mid-1960s, although these met the needs of only some working mothers.

In Cuba before 1959 there had been no state social security system. During the 1960s and 1970s legislation was passed to make social security and social welfare universal, benefiting working women and single mothers. Working women had guaranteed retirement and invalidity benefits and pensions on the death of their spouse. The Maternity Law was included in the Labour Code in 1974 to regulate maternity leave. Single mothers received small stipends that helped them raise their children while they were unable to work. Fathers were required to pay child support if divorced or separated from their spouses or partners, although many still did not do so. The Family Code approved in 1975 specified the rights and legal duties of all family members to contribute to eliminating the inequalities and discriminations that took place at home. At that time it was a very advanced legal instrument that insisted on the participation of all family members in domestic work to relieve women from this burden. However, although two of its articles stated that husband and wife must share all duties at home, even legislation was unable to make this a reality.

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