HAVANA — Cuba has made great strides in gender equality, but still has work to do in eradicating macho attitudes and supporting opportunities for women in business and leadership, according to a new report from a U.S. study group published to coincide with International Women's Day on Friday.
The Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas also warned that the island's economic difficulties and drive to restructure its socialist model could put at risk the advances in gender equality since the Cuban Revolution.
"Just like everywhere, in times of economic crisis it's women and families and kids that are often the most vulnerable," Sarah Stephens, the group's executive director, said Thursday.
During numerous research trips to the island and interviews with a wide range of Cuban women, Stephens said, that was "one of the concerns that we heard again and again."
President Raul Castro's economic reform plan includes massive reductions in state jobs, with those workers to be absorbed by an expanded private sector that has grown to 181 approved trades.
But the center report noted that many of those are male-dominated professions – mechanics, masons, construction workers and so on – and to date, 24 percent of small businesses are run by women.
Moreover there's no provision for women in the private sector to maintain rights they enjoy in government jobs, such as paid maternity leave and breaks for breast-feeding.
The center recommended that Cuba implement measures to support women as independent workers and small business owners, such as offering training in finance and marketing, improving access to credit and providing day care.
"What we heard from women was that much of the safety net, many of the benefits they received working for the state, they still desperately need in order to make ends meet, in order to be able to both hold down a job and take care of the home and the family and put meals on the table," Stephens said.
The report also recommended that the United States engage with Cuban women and society at large, including opening U.S. markets to Cuban goods.
Stephens' center is generally sympathetic to Havana and actively lobbies for changes in U.S. policy toward the island, including the lifting of the 51-year economic embargo.
Overall the report praised Cuba on gender equality especially compared with the rest of the region, noting advances in indicators such as universal literacy, low maternal death rates, high representation of women in higher education, the enshrinement of equal rights in the constitution and legal guarantees in the family code.
Still, it noted that Cuba has been criticized both internally and externally on domestic violence and it warned that cutbacks in the health and education systems potentially threaten gender equality if not handled properly.
It also suggested that a glass ceiling still exists to a certain extent, saying that while Cuban women constitute 53 percent of workers with graduate degrees, they occupy just 34 percent of executive positions. Fewer than 40 percent of women are employed, and they earn less than half of what men make, the study found.
"This is especially dispiriting to the highly trained women who emerge year after year from Cuban colleges, yet remain unable to fully employ their talents," the report said.
Castro, other officials and intellectuals have often stressed the importance of making Cuban society and government more inclusive of women, people of Afro-Cuban descent and youth.
In late February a new parliament formed with women making up 42 percent of its membership, continuing a gradual upward trend over the years. Thirty-nine percent were black or mestizo.
Castro also convened a new ruling Council of State with two women among its five vice presidents.
Sonia Delgado, a 52-year-history teacher in Havana, said she is grateful that women in Cuba have rights to equal education, equal pay for equal work and free contraception and abortion.
But Delgado said some workplace discrimination continues, and bosses can be hesitant to hire female employees for fear they might have children and miss work. In many families a husband's role is to "help out" rather than "share" household chores, she added.
"After the triumph of the revolution, women's lives changed and doors were opened," Delgado said. "But I would say machismo continues to exist in our society. Perhaps out of sight, but there it is, lurking."
Associated Press writer Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana contributed to this report.
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