Cuban women lead the way in science

Cuban medical workers on an international mission in Kenya

Since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the status and quality of life of Cuban women has improved dramatically with women now constituting almost 60% of all professionals and more than half of scientists. Women are also becoming increasingly represented in government, and in the national parliament 53.2% of members are women. The ministers for Education, Finance and Pricing, Domestic Trade, the Food Industry, Labour and Social Security, Science, Technology and the Environment, and the Minister and President of the Central Bank of Cuba are also all women, as well as the heads of the National Environmental Agency, and eight out of 15 provinces in Cuba are led by women.

This is a far cry from the status of women in pre-revolutionary Cuba. According to the 1953 national census there were 87,522 women working as domestic servants, 77,500 women working without pay for family members, and 21,000 women unemployed with a female population aged 15-59 numbering 1,742,377. Unemployment was a structural feature of the Cuban economy, especially among women. It is estimated that 83% of all employed women in Cuba worked less than ten weeks each year, and only 14% worked all year round.

As of 2018, however, women not only make up the majority of those in professional areas of work but they also hold two-thirds of the positions in Cuba’s science and technology sector, which is one of the highest percentages in the world, compared to roughly 25% in Europe. In Britain it’s even lower, with women only constituting 23% of all people working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) occupations. Women also constitute nearly 30% of members at the Cuban Academy of Sciences, compared to 10% in the United States’ National Academy of Sciences. Women in Cuba even make up 50% of those who work in engineering, a field that historically was exclusively men. In Britain, in 2017, the figure was just 11%.

But women aren’t just working in the science and technology sectors, they’re leading the way in them. The clinical research team which has developed the CIMAvax-EGF – the world’s first immunotherapy vaccine for stage three and four non-small lung cancer – was led by Tania Crombet MD PhD, the Director of Clinical Research at the Molecular Immunology Centre. Another global first, an effective meningitis B vaccine – the VA-MENGOC-BC – was created by a team in the 1980s led by Conchita Campa who was President and General Director of the Finlay Institute. Both co-founders of Cuba’s Clinical Trials Coordinating Center and Registry, and the founder of the National Center for Agricultural Animal Health, are women.

Lilliam Alvarez Diaz, the executive secretary for the Cuban Academy of Sciences, attributes Cuba’s achievements to ‘the principles of social inclusion and gender equity established during and after the Cuban Revolution’ (The World Academy of Sciences 4 November 2011). When interviewed for MEDICC Review (July 2018) Marta Nuñez MS PhD, a sociology professor at the University of Havana, says that gender equality ‘began in 1961 with the literacy campaign and subsequent policy declaring all levels of education universal and free’ which ‘gave women and girls – no matter their location or financial possibilities – the opportunity to pursue professional goals.’

She also credits universal health care, which has meant ‘all antenatal check-ups, more than two dozen well-baby and maternal consults during the baby’s first year of life, effective family planning and safe, accessible abortion’ are all free. Another reason that women in Cuba are able to succeed in the professional world is due to a national network of nursery schools, established in 1961; they are able to leave their children in high-quality, educational nurseries at very low cost. Cuba’s national policy of equal pay for equal work also helps support women’s progress (see FRFI 259).

Nevertheless, women in Cuba still face many problems, mostly associated with the lack of financial and material resources, which reflect the wider situation of the US blockade. There is also traditional gendered division of roles and ‘machismo’ which still prevail on the island. While socialism provides the environment for equality, sexist views do persist in individuals. Cuban women usually carry the double burden of paid employment and domestic work. However, unlike under capitalism, the revolution is absolutely committed to battling and eliminating sexism in all its forms.

What is vital, as Nuñez shows, is the social infrastructure created by socialism that enables women to fulfil their intellectual and social potential and ensures that women are supported to be able to participate on equal footing to men. It’s simple – once the institutionalised oppression of women which is crucial to the continuation of capitalism is replaced with socialism, women are able to thrive.

Cassandra Howarth

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 266 October/November 2018

 

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