Copyright 1999 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Equality Before the Law Has Not Eliminated Violence
By Dalia Acosta, IPS, 25 November 1999
HAVANA, Nov 25 (IPS) - Forty years of legally sanctioned gender equality in Cuba have not sufficed to uproot deeply ingrained sexist attitudes and domestic abuse, said advocates of women's rights on the occasion of the World Day for Eradication of Violence Against Women Thursday.
"You can't change a conception of the world by decree," said Celia Berges, with the Federation of Cuban Women, a government-affiliated organisation that groups most Cuban women over the age of 14.
"It doesn't matter how much we do in our jobs," said Ivette Rodriguez, a 38-year-old engineer. "At home, or when we step out onto the street, it's as if the time machine began to function and we were taken back to the past."
Women in Cuba represent a majority of university students, and 42.5 percent of the active labour force, 70 percent of educators, 72.4 percent of health workers and 43 percent of personnel in scientific institutions.
Cuban women also hold 30 percent of economic management and policy posts, and 27.6 percent of seats in parliament. There are three women on President Fidel Castro's cabinet, and 14 female ambassadors abroad.
But in spite of the predominance of women in some areas of the economy, sexist attitudes remain largely unchanged, agree Berges and Rodriguez.
"Despite everything that has been done in Cuba for women, men continue looking down at us from a position of power," said Rodriguez, who left her partner of eight years the day he hit her for the first - and last - time.
"Changing that mentality will be much more difficult than passing laws," she added.
Berges believes the problem of domestic violence in Cuba is a consequence of a heavily patriarchal society, in which sexist attitudes and conduct are transmitted from one generation to the next.
Violence against women in Cuba only began to be studied this decade, and precise figures are not yet available.
In 1991 and 1992, 150 cases of sexual abuse against women - 70 percent of which involved rape - were brought before the Havana Provincial Court, compared to just two cases of rape in which the victims were male.
The victims were mainly single working women or students under 30, and 60 percent of the women did not know their attackers, according to a report by Cuba's Institute of Forensic Medicine.
With respect to domestic violence, the scant studies available indicate that it cuts across society, recognising no religious, cultural or socioeconomic differences, skin colour, age difference or length of a relationship. Nor was alcoholism found to be a significant factor.
A study conducted in the province of Guantanamo, 971 kms from Havana, found that women between the ages of 21 and 30 were frequently injured in their homes or on the streets, at any time of day or night.
The leading motive found in the cases reported in 1996 and 1997 was an ex-husband's or ex-boyfriend's attempt to force a former partner to get back together with them.
Violence was a problem for 38 of 41 couples who went in for marriage counseling, according to a study by the Public Health Ministry's National Centre for Sex Education.
The authors of the study, Tamara Sanchez and Nancy Hernandez, said "the dependence which put women in a more passive and tolerant role has diminished," and women more frequently assume a "defensive" attitude today. That new stance, however, tends to lead to violent reactions by female victims of abuse, said the authors.
But women more frequently resort to psychological aggression, such as "the silent treatment," while men are more likely to use physical and sexual violence, they pointed out.
The study added that the increasing tendency to respond to violence with violence - whether pyschological or physical - was not "an indicator of the progress made by women," but on the contrary "only leads to the perpetuation of the problem and to increased damage to the relationship."
Although according to local authorities, levels of violence in Cuba are much lower than in most other Latin American countries, the Federation of Cuban Women promoted the creation of the National Group for Prevention of Violence Against Women two years ago.
One-third of married women in developing countries are victims of domestic abuse, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In fact, "violence kills more women of child- bearing age [worldwide] than traffic accidents and malaria combined," reports the UN agency.
In Latin America, over half of all women have been the victims of aggression at some point in their lives, and around 80,000 girls and teenagers die every year as a result of domestic violence.
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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