THE BLOG
12/02/2014 05:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Battered Women in Cuba: Where Can They Go?

UNHCR workshop on prevention and response to gender-based violence with women from Cuba, Haiti and Peru. (UNHCR Americas)

"Do you know what it feels like to break the wall?" she asked me years after we met. "It's like someone cracked a table on your face... it hurts, but you can't believe its your body."

"Now I'm afraid of men, I don't want to have anything to do with them," she confessed while we talked in a café with more flies than menu options. She began to narrate the details of a Calvary she had always kept hidden, from shame and because she felt responsible for those blows. Today, she can't hear out of one ear, her nose slants to the left and she mistrusts all those whose pants have a fly.

Like many provincial women, Ileana landed in Havana on the arm of a man who promised her "villas and castles," he said. "I was very young and, since I was a little girl I'd been taught in my house in Banes that I should serve a man and please him." While she told me her story I had the impression I was speaking with a woman from the early twentieth century, but no: Ileana is younger than I am. She wore the school neckerchief, shouting "Pioneers for communism, we will be like Che," and studied up to the eleventh grade in a high school in the countryside.

"I came to Havana and for the first weeks he treated me like a queen," she said, unable to contain her smile. When Ileana laughs her whole face lights up and her nose looks more crooked than ever. "Then he started to mistreat me, but only verbally," she says, downplaying the importance while looking over her shoulder. A young man had sat down at the table next to us and was observing us laciviously. "Ladies, did someone stand you up? Because here is a stallion who never fails," he blurts out, under the imperturbable gaze of the waiter.

"The neighbors called the police several times. Then we spent hours and hours at the station at Zanja and Dragones streets, for nothing. The investigator told me they didn't get involved in things between husband and wife," and that, "I had to go home with him, because I didn't have anywhere else to go," she explains, already on the verge of tears. In Cuba, current law has enormous gaps with regards to gender violence. If the abuse "is not defined in the Penal Code, the abuser is not sanctioned," a lawyer at the law firm on Carlos III Street later explained to me, asking not to be named.

"He could only be charged if a doctor determined I had injuries," Ileana recalls. However, a black eye or an ache in the side isn't considered one. "I had to show a wound that was a puncture or bleeding," she explains. I look at her and question why a doctor would ignore the marks of cigarette burns on her forearm and her boxer's nose, without protecting her. What was lacking for a restraining order? That he kill her? I wondered, without sharing it with her.

Things have calmed down. The abuser is far away and this petite woman with her battered face confesses, "Well, I have to say, he wasn't so bad," and immediately adds, "in the tenement where we lived one woman had a husband who came home drunk from work one day with a machete." She touches wood and looks around while concluding, "Thanks to the virgin, I was luckier."

Her case was archived again and again. She had no phone to call from, no address for a battered women's shelter is published in the official media, so Ileana endured and remained silent. Her martyrdom lasted for a decade, including rape within the marriage -- also not defined in our laws -- the odd fracture, and constant humiliation.

"Then my daughter was born and she made me bold," says this woman dressed in baggy clothes, looking down, avoiding the eyes of the man sitting beside us at the café. "One night I gathered everything and went to my aunt's house." However, the escape didn't last very long. "Someone ran their mouth and told him where I was staying and he came to find me. It was the darkest night of my life."

Between pushes and insults, Ileana returned to her husband's house. "That night he forced me for hours while telling me 'you're mine and no other man's'." She told how the next day she couldn't even urinate. "I hurt all over and had his teeth marks all over my back." Then began the phase of total defeat. "I got used to it, that my life would be like this, and stopped resisting," she related with a pragmatism that is still painful.

Shortly afterwards the abuser found "an even younger country girl he mistreated," recalls Ileana. "I was crushed, I didn't want to look at myself in the mirror, I didn't put on make up, or go out in the street." In all that time, no women's organization approached her, she didn't know of any haven where she could find shelter, and more than a dozen times she heard the police that responded say, "Well, she must have done something to piss him off."

Today, Ileana shared with me her wish. "I want to have sex with a man without fear... romantically." As she says it her right hand touches her nose, trying to push it to the center... The place where it should have been if the abuser had not crossed her path.

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14ymedio, Cuba's first independent daily digital news outlet, published directly from the island, is available in Spanish here. Translations of selected articles in English are here.