Women, the crisis and the cuts - Cuba shows the alternative


In a time of global crisis, Cuba represents a unique reality for women. Understanding that sexual equality is necessarily bound with economic and political equality, women's emancipation is crucial to the ongoing process of revolution. The huge grassroots political involvement of the people, and the planned economy driven by their needs, means that society actively works to challenge sexism and inequality. Accordingly, Cuba stands out in The World Economic Forum's study on gender disparity and economics - despite its small economy and the blockade which attempts to strangle development, its women rank highly in health, education, political and economic equality. The index shows Cuba's gender disparity has improved; Britain, despite its imperialist wealth, is only four places above Cuba, and has fallen in ranking.

As the crisis deepens, capitalism furiously seeks more and more investment and profit at the expense of the working class. In Britain, this means cuts to public services, benefits, wages and jobs, with women expected to bear the brunt of the attack. Women experience the double burden of class and gender; working at home, and often as well as providing part-time, low-paid and dispensable labour. The material position of working-class women, a desperate reality of capitalism, is too often excluded from feminist discussions of gender; it must be central to the discussion of women's emancipation, and the wider equality of society.

In capitalist countries across the world, women's unemployment is a significant problem. In Britain, it has reached its highest figure since 1988. 65% of public sector workers are women, making them particularly vulnerable to the savage public sector cuts announced by the government. Women lucky enough to be in employment in Britain face significant barriers based on their gender. Twice as many working women are low-paid than working men. Not only are there more women working for less, low-paid women are paid around 10% less than low-paid men. This pay gap widens as income rises; it is of course a significant minority of women who work in positions of power and influence, and for far less money than their male counterparts. Women make up the majority of part-time workers, on contracts that are less secure, making them more dispensable as conditions change.

The class divisions become even more stark when ethnicity is considered; black, asian and minority ethnic women work disproportionately in temporary contracts, leaving their earnings insecure. They receive less maternity pay, and are also the least likely to be able to access benefits. Not only are the poorest women insecure in their employment, they are also least likely to receive support; a double blow based on gender and class. Such contracts affect not only a woman's ability to work, but also her ability to organise - often separated from regular work with colleagues, on constantly shifting hours, she becomes further isolated in the workplace and at home.

Whether unemployed or employed, women are more likely to act as unpaid carers than men, and also more likely to work longer hours providing this care. Women therefore not only provide cheap labour that can be called or discarded at will, but they are also predominately responsible for the unpaid care of other workers, as well as those who are ill or need support that our public services cannot provide for.

Added to this, women rely more on public sector support, and accordingly the cuts affect women disproportionately - the gender audit of the budget, conducted by the Commons Library, shows that 70% of money raised from direct tax and cuts to benefits comes from female taxpayers. Men are set to pay £2.2 billion, whilst women will pay £5.8 billion. Whilst it is important that both genders face falling living standards, driven down as the government desperately try to cutback and privatise, women are the first to lose, and are set to lose the most. Whilst the issue of childcare does affect single men, and families, women are more likely to receive child tax credits, which have been cut by 10%; this means a loss of between £436 and £1,300 a year. Because of this and extremely high childcare costs, women are being forced to leave their jobs and care for their children - but without the guaranteed support network of SureStart centres and other public services.

The poorest women, more dependent on public services, will be hit the hardest. The health in pregnancy grant, and the SureStart maternity grant, aimed at keeping unemployed and low-waged mothers healthy and supported in pregnancy, have been scrapped and cut respectively. Women living in households where both partners are unemployed are seven times more likely to die in childbirth than those in employed households - and this figure was reported when the health grants were still in place. The government understands that women, who should be healthy and thriving, are dying due to poverty, yet these grants have been amongst the first to go. The privatisation of the NHS, at a time when people's health is set to deteriorate due to rising unemployment, will only worsen the situation.

From working, to pregnancy and childcare, and then into retirement women face oppression. One in five single women pensioners live in poverty. Women are now expected to work longer, and then to receive less support. Women living under the capitalist system are not just disadvantaged by the system, but are coming under increasing attack because of it. Those most vulnerable face a society that punishes rather than supports, a dual oppression of economic position and and women's role in society. 60% of sexual and domestic violence refuge services, and 72% outreach services, have no agreed funding for this year. Domestic violence is increasing as the support decreases. It is expected that, this year, over 70,000 women will not be able to access the support they need.

Similarly, those women imprisoned reveal the combined oppression of gender, class and race. The largest group of women, a third, are held for drug offences, and more women are sent to prison for handling stolen goods or theft than for any other crime. A third of women are not British citizens, held for drug-related or passport offences. Importantly, two thirds of women in prison are held on remand, and 59% of these go on to receive non-custodial sentences. Women being held in remand is significant for the life of her family and community, as 66% of women prisoners are mothers.

The problems facing women are exacerbated by each other; women's quality of life is spiralling downwards. In 2005, the Equal Opportunities Commission estimated that 30,000 women lose their jobs per year as a result of being pregnant. In 2009, agencies supporting pregnancy related redundancies reported that this figure is rising -  with attacks on benefits, reductions in pregnancy support and fewer jobs, a woman will be further isolated, refused support and denied work due to their ability to bear children. It is clear how a capitalist system necessarily perpetuates gender inequalities in society, in direct opposition to the socialist understanding - as Lenin argued in 1920, 'the main task is to draw the women into socially productive labour, extricate them from "domestic slavery", free them of their stultifying and humiliating resignation to the perpetual and exclusive atmosphere of the kitchen and nursery'.

The wider effect of capitalism around the world is of course bleaker, when the effects of imperialist plunder and war are considered. As imperialist states steal the natural wealth of countries around the world, drive conflict and civil war, and as the immediate effects of global warming are felt by developing countries, women suffer as capitalism profits. Of people living worldwide on less than $1 a day, in abject poverty, 70% are women, and over 80% of the world's refugees are women. This plunder and oppression is set to worsen as imperialist countries jostle for new profits and investment.

This is why it is important to turn to the example of Cuba, a society committed to working towards genuine equality at home, and with its anti-imperialist stance, across the world. It truly is a stark difference to the bleak statistics given above, which of course represent obscene exploitation and suffering. Cuba's recognition of the role of women as central to the progress of socialism, and against chauvinism and exploitation, is reflected in its political reality: women make up 40.2% of leadership positions in Cuba, hold professional positions in ministries, and make up 47.3% of the active workforce. Where women are under-represented, such as the number of those awarded land in usufruct, the Federation of Cuban Women strives to make positive change. They aim to assess women's situations, and prepare and support them through new opportunities. Whilst sexism cannot be eradicated overnight, women are central to driving change in a society which has prepared the foundations for this possibility. As Alexandra Kollontai, Soviet women's leader declared in 1909, 'women can become truly free and equal only in a world organised along new social and productive lines'. It is important to remember that in Britain, key women's support organisations are being shut. The Women's National Commission, which was set up in 1969 as an independent body to identify issues women felt strongly about and take them to the government, was dismantled just as the cuts began to be made. It is clear that capitalism is not progressive for women; not in the heart of imperialism, nor around the world.  As Cuba actively shows, it is only under socialism that women can truly challenge their material reality, and oppression based on gender and economic relations - for their liberation and for the emergence of true and international equality for all.