By Dalia Acosta
HAVANA, Oct 12, 2011 (IPS) - Continuing its mission to promote gender
studies and use academia to demonstrate the inequalities between women
and men in Cuba, the Women's Studies Department is celebrating 20 years
of work with new challenges in terms of researching and drawing
attention to the disadvantages faced by the female population.
"We have to take a critical approach to reality to see the inequalities
that persist and those that are emerging in today's new scenarios. The
patriarchy reproduces itself and is difficult to change," Norma Vasallo,
president of the Women's Studies Department at the University of Havana,
told IPS. She said she still sees a long road ahead.
"The current 'updating' of the economic model in the country could have
repercussions on the development that women have achieved," Vasallo, a
psychologist, said, commenting on one of the principal challenges faced
by women's studies in the context of the economic changes ushered in by
the Raúl Castro government.
Cuban women hold 42.7 percent of public sector jobs, according to the
National Office of Statistics.
But since the government announced massive lay-offs of public employees
last year, which were to potentially affect one million people by the
end of 2011, an expansion of self-employment and areas like agriculture
and construction that are not traditionally seen as the domain of women
has been expected to absorb the hundreds of thousands of employees
slashed from the public workforce.
Women make up about 69,000 of the more than 300,000 people with small
private businesses, the labour and social security deputy minister, José
Barreiro, told the Cuban parliament in late July. However, women tend to
be concentrated in low-income activities or as the employees of these
businesses, and rarely as the owners.
The agriculture sector shows similar figures. In the interest of
increasing the presence of women, and not just as subordinates, the
nongovernmental National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) and the
Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) are aiming to reach a total of 100,000
women in diverse jobs in the cooperative sector by the end of 2011.
Another pending issue for academia is the area of women and health, a
concern that has not caught on among the medical personnel of this
Caribbean island nation, Vasallo said. Moreover, progress is needed in
the areas of law and communication, and in legitimising "problems that
are not yet recognised by society, such as gender-based violence," she
Since it was created in September 1991, the department has brought
together researchers, above all, from the University of Havana's 17
departments, including psychology, sociology, philosophy and philology.
Their efforts have been joined by the activities of other entities, such
as the FMC and the Oscar Arnulfo Romero Reflection and Solidarity Group.
"Since the late 1980s, a marked interest has resurfaced among women
academics in having an association," noted writer Luisa Campusano during
a gathering of the department's founders in September. "When the
economic crisis was forecast, the need to research women's issues became
stronger," she explained.
Sociologist Marta Núñez said this interest was related to "the
ideological position, in this case of women researchers, that women
suffer disadvantages such as the double workday, at work and at home."
Cuban women devote an average of 34 hours a week to domestic work, while
men only spend about 12 hours on supportive tasks, studies show.
Before the department was founded, demographer Sonia Catasús,
sociologists Niurka Pérez and Elena Díaz, psychologist Irene Smith,
Núñez and Campusano, among others, individually conducted research in
what is now known as "gender studies," in their different institutions
and nongovernmental organisations.
In the early 1980s, the first articles appeared on women construction
workers, women farmers and women brick-makers, in addition to subjects
like literature, fertility and feminism. Some of the outstanding work
focused on Cuban women in two textile factories, the Ariguanabo
(1986-1988) and the Celia Sánchez (1986-1987).
Women's studies began appearing in Cuba at least 15 years after their
peak in Latin America, Vasallo says regretfully. In 1989, since the
emergence of the Women's and Family Studies Department at the Villa
Clara Teachers' Institute, located about 360 kilometres east of Havana,
these academic spaces for women's studies became official and are now
In 1988, a group of teachers presented a request to create the women's
studies department to the vice-chancellor's office of the University of
Havana, but it did not happen until 1991, Elena Díaz recalled. It was
proposed then to encourage these studies in the country and to reflect
on the needs and obstacles faced by the female population.
"We were able to promote human resource training through continuing
education courses and local, national and international conferences,"
Vasallo said about the work of the group led until 1997 by psychologist
That is how the biannual international workshop Women in the 21st
Century arose in 1995, and as of its 2011 edition, participation
continued to grow, including the number of papers presented, from all 15
Cuban provinces, and it was expanded to include other issues within
women's studies, such as violence, masculinity and race.
In 2005, a master's programme in Gender Studies was created. It is the
only one of its kind in the country, and the third of five editions was
offered at the University of Holguín, 689 kilometres east of Havana,
with financial support from Oxfam International.