March 8th is known around the world as International Women’s Day (IWD). Every year it is a time for women around the world to reflect on the gains and challenges our gender continues to face.
At the same time, fighting for women’s equality and liberation is not only for women, but for all of humanity. Firstly, because one of the most important steps to improving the lives of all children, is the empowerment of women. Secondly, because the deeply harmful ideology and values that capitalist patriarchy forces on men not only debase and demean women, but men as well. While women are often referred to as a ‘minority’ we are 51% of the human race, which deserves to find its rightful and equal place in this world.
Despite our different backgrounds: culture, country, race, age, sexual orientation and class, women all face sexism and oppression based on gender. Our diversity can be our strength, but it often divides us. However, when we are at our most powerful is when we unite and fight to overcome many of these barriers by protecting and advancing our rights.
On March 8, 2017, as we celebrate the gains our sisters have made in struggles for women’s equality and liberation worldwide, we must also understand how far we have come and how far we have to go. Here in Canada, women often tout our accomplishments: from the right to vote, to our equality under Canadian law and the creation of various institutions for women. However, I want to explore the systemic issues that continue to plague the advancement of women's rights in Canada. These systemic issues are inherent under capitalism which needs divisions such as sexism, racism and homophobia in order to keep working and oppressed people divided and easier to exploit. In contrast, I will look at socialist Cuba, which has been working since the victory of their revolution in 1959 to eradicate systemic sexism and sexism in society, to move towards women’s true liberation and equality. While Cuba is not perfect, it is an important example of the accomplishments women can make when society sets the elimination of inequality as a real goal in law, policy and action.
Women in Canada: Many obstacles to overcome
Women living in Canada will often compare our gains to those of the past or extreme examples of women’s oppression around the world, the conclusion is usually, ‘well it is not perfect, but we have it pretty good here’. Those comparisons may be fair, but they do not help us in understanding the long way we have to go to true gender equality. We do not often talk about the fact that in Canada, our gains are not, and have never been, shared by ALL women equally. For example, most textbooks on Canadian history state that women won the right to vote in 1918. However, this ignores that the right to vote was only won by white women in 1918. It wasn’t until after World War II in the late 1940s that Asian women in Canada won the right to vote. Still later in 1960, when Indigenous women won their right to vote in federal elections – that’s over 40 years apart!
We know from statistics Canada that in 2017, the average life expectancy for women in Canada is projected to be 83 years. However according to Statistics Canada projections, Inuit women are expected to live an average of ten years less, and Métis and First Nations women will live 3-5 years less than the Canadian average. Additionally, despite ‘equality under law’, we know that the government of Canada has been getting away with systemically underfunding Indigenous children in government care as compared to non-Indigenous children, because of the heroic work of Cindy Blackstock, a Gitxsan activist for child welfare and the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. Of course, with more finances towards women’s physical and mental health and other social programs, both in urban and rural regions, the need for having children living in government care would surely decrease.
While Indigenous women in Canada are disproportionately affected by the government’s war at home, all women in Canada are affected by systemic sexism and patriarchy. According to the 2011 Statistics Canada report, "Families, Living Arrangements and Unpaid Work":
1) "In 2010, women spent an average of 50.1 hours per week on child care, more than double the average time (24.4 hours) spent by men." This statistic includes both working and non-working mothers in Canada. For example, even women who worked full-time and were part of a dual-earner couple reported spending an average of 49.8 hours per week on unpaid child care.
2) "While men reported spending, on average, 8.3 hours on unpaid domestic work, women spent more than one and a half times this amount—13.8 hours."
3) "Even though women are more likely than men to go to college or university, they do not necessarily end up with higher employment earnings than men when they enter the job market. In 2005, young women aged 25 to 29 with full-year, full-time work were earning 85 cents for each dollar earned by their male counterparts."
In March 2016, the Globe and Mail Newspaper did a special on gender parity and the wage gap in Canada, they wrote, “a woman working full time in Canada makes 73.5 cents for every dollar a man makes, according to updated Statistics Canada income data produced for The Globe and Mail – a persistent wage gap that continues even though women’s educational attainment has surpassed that of men.”
So while we read many positive headlines about women in Canada: "Syrian women come to Canada to continue their education", "Canada pledges up to $20 million for international abortion fund", "By learning trades, women can save themselves — and maybe even the economy", etc. We have to continue to understand the fight for women’s equality remains a high priority in Canada, even when it is not garnering national mainstream media headlines.
Of course these statistics are no accident, there are deep systemic issues at play. Under capitalism the drive for profit will always trump the well-being of women, children and even men. Women’s unpaid childcare and housework, the wage gap, the rates of violence against women (especially violence against Indigenous women), the fact the poverty disproportionately affects women, and access to women’s health services are all issues in need of real solutions. However, this is not possible in a system where everyone is looking to make a buck, rather than invested in the betterment of communities and society as a whole.
The Power of Revolutionary Cuban Women
On June 9, 2015 the New York Times published, "The Cuban woman: A rising power" an article that stated, “Cuba consistently ranks high in international surveys regarding women’s status, standing at 18 among 142 nations in women’s political empowerment and at number two for percentage of women in parliament, according to the 2014 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report. By contrast, the United States is ranked at 54 in women’s political empowerment and 83 for women in parliament (U.S. Senate and U.S. House).” Continuing, the article explains, "Today, women make up nearly half of [Cuba]’s work force and more than half of university faculties, and hold top portfolios in the ministries.”
The last election for Cuban parliament was held in 2013. According to Juventud Rebelde, over 7.8 million Cubans voted in the election, which means their election boasted 90.8% voter turnout. Of the ballots cast, 94% were valid, 1% were spoiled ballots and 5% were blank, this is an amazing voter participation rate, especially because Canada has been fighting to get over 60% turnout, with the exception of the most recent 2015 election when 68% of those eligible to vote turned out (this was the highest turn out since 1993). In the United States, who claims to be the leader of democracy and democratic values worldwide, the U.S. voter turnout for the November 2016 Presidential election was about 55%.
What is more important for the purpose of this article is not voter turnout, but who they elected. Cuba’s national parliament is currently 48.9% female. On the other hand, while Canada was very excited to announce after the federal election in 2015 that 88 women were elected to parliament (a national record!), the Canadian Broadcast Corporation published an article reminding us, "50% population, 25% representation. Why the parliamentary gender gap?" They explain, "A record 88 women were elected in the 2015 federal election, up from 76 in 2011. The increase represents a modest gain in terms of representation, with women now accounting for 26 per cent of the seats in the House." This actually leaves Canada at 62nd place in terms of the percentage of women in national government compared to countries around the world.
For Cuban women the gains are not only in the national government In November 2012, Adela Hernandez was the first openly trans person in Cuba to be elected in the municipal elections in Caibarien, Villa Clara province. Since 2007 sex-change surgery has been made available for free to trans people in Cuba under their universal health care system. These are important gains made for women’s rights, no matter their gender assigned at birth.
The gains of Cuban women are not only being won in the electoral realm. Cuba’s constitution includes a special article for women and gender equality. Article 44 states, "Women and men enjoy equal economic, political, cultural, social, and familial rights. The State guarantees that women will be offered the same opportunities and possibilities as men to achieve their full participation in the development of the country. [...] The State strives to create all the conditions that will lead to the implementation of the principle of equality." This is an important part of the protection and advancement of women rights under law.
Since 1960, the Cuban Women’s Federation (FMC), a mass organization, has been developing policies and programs aimed at achieving full equality for women in all spheres and levels of Cuban society. Among the objectives of this organization is to contribute to the training and well-being of the next generations. The FMC has thousands of branches across the country at the grassroots level, as well as, municipal, provincial and national offices. They organize “Casas de Orientación a la Mujer y la Familia” (Women and family orientation houses), workshops, forums, a magazine, online blogs, laws and policies for workplaces, intuitions and government, and even community block parties.
Childcare is another huge fight for women in Canada. Access to affordable childcare gives women the possibility to further contribute to society and the economy. In Cuba there are many work places that have free childcare centres to encourage women to participate in the economy and make life easier for Cuban families. In fact, a decreasing birthrate in Cuba, along with aging population, which is generally only a problem in industrialised or ‘first world’ countries, is leading to some changes in Cuban law. In February 2017, the Washington Post published an article titled, "Cuba wants more babies, so it’s giving parental leave to grandparents, too." Journalist Nick Miroff writes, "The island already has one of the most generous parental leave policies in the Americas, allowing mothers and fathers to take more than a year off from work at partial pay. The new decree extends those benefits to maternal and paternal grandparents." This is an interesting new initiative, which demonstrates how Cuba attempts to confront challenges, such as a low birth rate and aging population, in dynamic and creative ways.
How was Cuba able to do all of this?
Since Comandante Fidel Castro and his revolutionary guerilla fighters began their struggle for revolution with the attack on the Moncada army barracks in 1953, there have been courageous women involved in the struggle. Melba Hernández, Celia Sánchez, Vilma Espín, Haydée Santamaría, and the all-women Mariana Grajales Brigade are some famous examples of the importance of women’s leadership in the Cuban revolution.
Fidel Castro said, "They talk about the failure of socialism, but where is the success of capitalism in Africa, Asia and Latin America?" The fight for women’s equality in Cuba has not been easy and is not finished. However, it is only thanks to Cuba’s socialist revolution and on going socialist project, that the space has been opened for women to push forward and advance their causes. This means striving towards equality between genders and an end to the exploitation of one human being by another. Has Cuba totally eradicated sexism and patriarchy? NO! Both Cuban women and men will tell you, they have a long ways to go.
Women liberation in Cuba: Revolution in Revolution
In an interesting observation, Margaret Randall, an American feminist and author of the ground breaking book "Cuban Women Now" (1972), was in Havana this February to launch the Spanish version of her autobiography, "To Change the World: My Years in Cuba" (Rutgers UP, 2009) / "Cambiar el mundo. Mis años en Cuba (Ediciones Matanzas, 2016). In an interview with Cuban Art News, she spoke about her time living in Cuba from 1969-1980. She explains, "Cuba gave me so much: a life experience in a socialist country that taught me it is possible to build a more just society. I don’t know what I gave Cuba, and in any case it’s for others to say. I know that at times my feminism was too much for the Cuba of those years. My opinions and attitudes weren’t always well received. With the passage of time, I think we’ve come closer together, Cuba and I." This is the power of the Cuban revolution, a constant evolution and moving forward, correcting mistakes and finding new solutions, this is why it is a truly dynamic revolution.
While Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls himself a ‘feminist’ and has garnered much praise for his open stance on gay marriage and LGBTQ+ rights, we have yet to see what he will do for Canada’s most marginalized women; or how his feminism will work to provide affordable childcare and housing for women who need it; or his policies to end violence against women in Canada; or to improve access to abortion for women in rural communities; or eliminate the wage gap. Of course, we understand that men who call themselves feminists are useless to our cause, unless they take action by our sides.
Women in Canada need to see Cuba as an example in the fight against sexism and patriarchy. If Cuba, as a developing country with a small economy, can make all of these advances through education, organization and revolutionary consciousness, then here in Canada we must push and demand more. Indeed, women’s lives depend on it.
Follow Tamara Hansen on Twitter: @THans01
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