As Cuba buries Fidel Castro and the world still remembers Che Guevara, little is known about the women who fought for the Cuban Revolution and their significant role in shaping the post-revolutionary Cuba.
During the U.S- backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, Cubans faced illiteracy, unemployment, sexism, racism and exploitation. Hunger and malnutrition were widespread. Many women were forced into prostitution to feed their families. Peasant women found themselves economically tied to the land they farmed, which was mainly owned by the U.S. corporations that dominated the Cuban economy. In letters to a friend, the first female combatant Celia Sánchez wrote: “U.S. businesses owned 90 percent of Cuba’s mines, 80 percent of its public utilities, 50 percent of its railways, 40 percent of its sugar production, and 25 percent of its bank deposits.”
American mafia controlled and owned every casino, most hotels and the sex industry in Havana. According to Celia, thousands of children were kidnapped and sold into the sex trade “to lure rich US pedophiles.” She experienced it first-hand: after missing for several days Maria Ochoa, a 10 years old peasant girl that Celia raised as her own, was found dead in the basement of a casino. She had been “used up and thrown away” by a wealthy North American gambler who requested a young girl for the night.
Under these horrific conditions it’s no wonder thousands of Cuban women joined the guerilla troops when Fidel Castro started to challenge Batista’s authority in 1953. Women were “selling war bonds and producing rebel uniforms, taking part in propaganda work, participating in action and sabotage units in the cities, transporting arms and fighting in the mountain” asserts Margaret Randall, author of Women in Cuba, Twenty Years Later.
Women from the Rebel Army recruited and trained women in the nation’s first female platoon. Fidel Castro and Celia created the Mariana Grajales Platoon on September 4, 1958, named after the legendary general who fought heroically in Cuba’s wars of independence.
Working and fighting alongside their male comrades, women proved they were capable of more than the traditional domestic burdens. In an essay Che Guevara wrote: “women are capable of doing every task that a man can do” and that “The part that the woman can play in the development of a revolutionary process is of extraordinary importance.”
On January 3, 1959, in his first address as the leader of Cuba, Fidel lauded women’s participation in the Revolution and exhorted Cuba to change the sexist attitudes and practices that discriminate against women:
“Because it is proven that not only our men fight, but also our women fight in Cuba; the best proof is the ‘Mariana Grajales’ platoon, that distinguished itself so well in numerous battles. And women are as excellent soldiers as the best of our male soldiers. (…) I wanted to demonstrate that women could be just as good at being soldiers, and that many prejudices existed … relative to women, and that women comprise a sector of our country that needs to be redeemed, because they are the victim of discrimination in the workplace and in many other aspects of life. So we organized the women’s units and these proved that women could fight, and when the men fight in a village and the women can fight alongside them, such villages are impregnable and the women of such villages cannot be defeated.”
Following the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, women grew stronger under the Federación Mujer Cubanas (FMC), an organisation headed by revolutionary Vilma Espín until her death in 2007. The Federation of Cuban women was created to educate women on their continuing role in the Revolution, which continued to flourish. The FMC was deeply involved in fighting illiteracy and was essential to the literacy campaign of 1961, when 100,000 student teachers, most of them teenage girls, spread out across the country to teach a million people to read and write. The FMC also worked in developing access to healthcare and eliminating prostitution. Fidel Castro proclaimed in a speech in 1966 that “this phenomenon of women’s participation in the revolution was a revolution within the revolution… the revolution is occurring among the women of our country!”
01 May 1961 – Young women working for a literacy campaign parading
with big pencils in the streets of La Havana during the Cuban Revolution.
In the 1970’s the FMC started to develop pro-women laws and programs. Its actions were supported by the revolutionary government as socialist theory establishes that everyone is equal regardless of age and gender. The radical reshaping of society that followed the overthrow of the Batista’s regime gave women freedoms and responsibilities that they had never experienced before. For the first time in Cuban history women were trained as technicians, possessed positions as leaders of the Cuban Communist Party, administered federal government secret services, and led some the country’s most important social organisations.
However, even if Castro’s government created jobs and provided free education to women, Cuban women still experienced discrimination at home. By 1974 the FMC raised enough public and political support to create the Cuban Family Code. The law’s objectives served to restructure the family, eliminate gender discrimination and establish the full equality of women within the home. The Code was finally completed and enacted on International Women’s Day, March 8, 1975.
Several elements of the Family Code of 1975 were incorporated in the new Cuban Constitution which is one of a few constitutions in the world that guarantees women the same rights as men “in the economic, political, and social fields as well as in family.”
With a strong leadership, Vilma’s close friendship with Fidel Castro (she was married to his brother Raul), and an important mobilisation (85.2% of all eligible women over 14), the FMC has been essential in socially reforming Cuba since the Revolution. Cuban women have access to paid maternity leave, childcare provisions, free medical care, expanded education opportunities and equal pay for equal work. According to an article from the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, Cuba is ranked third in the world in terms of most female representation in the country’s main governing body with a Congress that is 49% female . For perspective, the United States is ranked 76th on that same list, the Congress being only about 20% female.
Unfortunately, the numbers don’t tell the whole story and reality in regards to gender equality is far from perfect.
The culture of machismo, or male domination, common to many Latin American countries is still embedded in Cuban society. Even with a full-time job Cuban women are expected to take on the domestic chores and care for the children, a double burden not all want to carry. Employed women do not hold positions of power. Although the Cuban Congress is elected by the people, it’s the Cuban Communist Party, with only 7% of women, that holds the true political power.
Also, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of its financial aid and foreign relations with Cuba, the Cuban government has begun shifting toward a more privatised economy. To increase its foreign revenue Cuba is investing heavily in its tourism industry. Educated women leave state employment to work in any higher paid tourism-related activity, such as maid or cook or similar jobs, thus reinforcing the traditional gender roles that Cuban women already struggle against. With the development of tourism also came a rise of sex tourism, an old problem that still persists in Cuba.
What has been achieved by women for their country and for the advancement of women’s rights in Cuba since the Revolution is nothing less than remarkable. However Cuban women’s revolution and their quest for liberation have still a long way to go.