Published on : 18 June 2011 - 11:28pm | By Sergio Acosta
Mariela Castro Espín, the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro,
speaks of her country's struggle to overcome sexual prejudice—and the
progress it is making regarding transsexuals.
Speaking at the 20th World Congress for Sexual Health held in the
Scottish city of Glasgow, Ms Castro praised Holland's sex education,
including Love Matters, Radio Netherlands Worldwide's website that
informs young people on sex and sexual health in a clear and simple way.
It is a model that can and should be exported to other countries, says
Ms Castro, who heads Cuba's National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX).
"It's being developed in many countries now, in some with greater
success than others, but in Holland it has been used continually, which
is what we want to do in Cuba."
Contraceptives and condoms
Dutch sex education promotes the use of contraceptives and condoms.
Combined with sex education, which is offered at most schools, this
model, United Nations figures show, has led to some of the world's
lowest rates in teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and
abortions. In addition, youths in Holland tend to have their first
sexual encounters at an older age than teenagers in countries where sex
Ms Castro hopes to study Holland's sex education model at first hand in
the near future as part of her efforts to introduce changes in Cuba.
"Our talks with our health ministry are progressing, but things with the
education ministry are slower."
Raúl Castro: father and confidant
Ms Castro hints that Cuba's Communist Party may soon be ready to
recognise gay and lesbian rights, even though her father has cautioned
her that the time may not yet be ripe.
"I'll be frank with you. My father, with all his experience in outlining
strategies, and getting them implemented, has told me one first has to
create the right conditions—and Cuban society lacks them in many areas.
When the Revolution declared itself socialist after the 1961 Bay of Pigs
invasion, people took up arms to defend it, hardly knowing what
socialism was exactly. It seems a contradiction, but what I'm trying to
say it that in this macho culture we've made a lot of progress regarding
women's rights. So I'd tell my father: why don't we do the same thing
with these issues? But he'd say: look, some things have such deeps roots
in our culture, that you'll face a lot of resistance unless you sort out
some other things first. That's why it's necessary to wait until the
party conference in January and make progress informing the population
with the help of the media. That way we'll get things ready in order to
get a good result."
Sex education, experts say, has three pillars: home, school and the
media. Officially instituted in 1976, in practice Cuba's sex education
wasn't introduced until 1996. It is still suffering from a number of
contradictions, Ms Castro warns.
"Cuban families trust a lot what children are told at school," she says.
"We began marking days against homophobia in 2008, and now people are
beginning to tell their children. They didn't in the past, thinking we
were only telling them how to avoid pregnancies, or telling them about
infections and biological issues. But all that is proving complicated
because the national media are not helping."
However, at the last Communist Party Congress, held in April, President
Raúl Castro launched a harsh attack on Cuba's media. Thanks to that, Ms
Castro believes, the media reported on the latest day against homophobia.
As the head of CENESEX, Ms Castro has made the fight against homophobia
in Cuba a personal struggle, giving countless talks and interviews.
"Prejudices are still deeply rooted, in our culture and in our history
as a nation. Finding new elements that can change the reality of such
views is very hard. What I try to do is to dismantle prejudices and
offer elements that allow another perspective on the sexual reality of
human beings. Making progress in these elements, especially in those of
gender and equal women's rights, has helped us make progress in
respecting sexual diversity and gender identity."
High abortion rates
One of Cuba's main problems is the high rate of unwanted teenage
pregnancies. "I defend a woman's right to make decisions regarding her
body, and if women were revanchist and vindictive, they should propose
to introduce laws that force men to undergo a vasectomy after they turn
50, so they won't have children left and right when they're too old,
which is extremely irresponsible. An abortion is a matter between a man
and a woman, and men should be taught to be responsible."
Cuba has no abortion law but since 1965 abortions have been offered as a
free public health care service, which led to a significant drop in the
number of deaths resulting from clandestine abortions.
A key role in institutionalising abortion and promoting women's rights
was played by the former president of the Federation of Cuban Women, the
late Vilma Espín—Ms Castro's mother.