In Verisk Maplecroft’s Women’s and Girls’ Rights Index 2016, Cuba is ranked 115st out of 198 countries (where 1st denotes the greatest risk). The index categorises the country as exposing investors to a ‘medium risk’ of association with practices that discriminate against, or otherwise limit or infringe the rights of, women and girls.
Since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, women’s positions have improved significantly, and the country occupies 29th place out of 145 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2015. Thanks to progressive policies and legislation, around half the workers in the public sector are women, as are half the parliamentarians, the latter being the third highest percentage of any country in the world. All women receive pre- and post-natal care, and childcare centres enable young mothers to earn a living.[i] However, discrimination against women in the workplace and at home remains common.
Since an historic announcement in December 2014 to normalise relations between Cuba and the US, businesses have begun looking at opportunities to invest in the Caribbean island. There, they will find a highly educated female workforce. Women make up 80% of all university students in Cuba. Subjects such as social sciences and medicine are dominated by girls, and the health sector is made up predominantly of women.[ii] The high number of female graduates in these sectors suggests that investment in these would benefit girls, but particularly in the reputed biotechnology sector, which can expect to see increased levels of interest from foreign companies as the trade embargo is slowly chipped away by the US government.
Over the past 20 years, women workers have had to deal with many challenges. Because of the economic sanctions, the economy has been in continual crisis leaving the state unable to provide basic care. Women are struggling to work and look after their families simultaneously, faced with chronic food shortages and an aging population to care for. Even so, women make up more than half of the Cuban workforce. Recent reforms allowing Cubans to launch their own businesses have resulted in an increase in women starting their own businesses. Despite a difficult operating environment due to tight government control, women are involved in a number of sectors, from small car services for tourists to artisanal clothes manufacturing and luxury soap production.
However, women that are in safe and secure jobs remain vulnerable to falling into prostitution. This is because women can earn more as a sex worker than they might as surgeons or lawyers; this is partly related to the existence of two currencies – one for the Cuban market and one for foreigners and the external market, which is 24 times more valuable. Since the early 1990s, the influx of tourists has encouraged disadvantaged adolescent girls and young women to become sex workers, known as jineteras in Cuba. The government largely turns a blind eye to tourists paying for underage sex due to tourism’s important contribution to the economy.
While Cuba’s women are among the most privileged in the world according to employment and social indicators, in practice their position is much the same as in most other countries in Latin America, discriminated against both at home and in the workplace. Increased levels of foreign investment would help not only by providing women with more jobs but also by increasing cross-cultural exchanges that would eventually change prevailing machista attitudes and place more pressure on the Cuban government to shatter the glass ceiling.
[i] Trading Economics, Pregnant women receiving prenatal care (%) in Cuba. Available at: http://www.tradingeconomics.com/cuba/pregnant-women-receiving-prenatal-care-percent-wb-data.html
[ii] American Association of University Women, 2011, Gender Equality and the Role of Women in Cuban Society. Available at: http://www.aauw.org/files/2013/01/Cuba_whitepaper.pdf