Cuban women cite gender challenges as they push to open businesses

HAVANA – Cuba led the way in recognizing the rights and equality of women after the Fidel Castro revolution in 1959. Women were placed in positions of power and responsibility, and the government legalized abortion and day-care centers, steps that enabled women to enter professional life alongside men.

However, Cuban women who wish to participate in the island’s gradual opening to independent small businesses say they face unique challenges of a patriarchal society that favors men and male-owned businesses.

Speaking at a recent business show for women entrepreneurs, Natalhie Fonseca, owner of Carrete, an online company that started making and selling handcrafted decorations for nurseries, said that the expectations of Cuban society hold women back from being housewives too .

According to Fonseca, she gets up at dawn, washes, cooks, looks after her two girls, cleans and works part-time in her husband’s cafe, in addition to running her own business.

“Twenty-four in a day is not enough,” she complained. “If we had a little help.”

AIynn Torres, a gender researcher at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, said that while Cuba made “a very big leap” in bringing women into the workplace in the 1960s and 1970s, its efforts have stagnated.

She said that 60% of Cuba’s university graduates are women, but most of them end up in the least paid sectors of the economy such as education or welfare. Women make up only a third of the self-employed in Cuba, whose economy is still largely state-run, and they make up just over 20% of small and medium-sized business owners, according to official figures.

“Conscious and systematic government action, not just words, is imperative to ensure greater participation by women,” said Torres.

She said more credit should be made available to women business owners and more should be done to care for the children, the sick and the elderly, whose responsibility now rests mainly on Cuba’s women.

Struck by low economic productivity and the obstacles posed by the US embargo, Cuba’s government has gradually opened up the private sector over the past decade.

Then President Raul Castro added licenses to start private businesses, legalized real estate transactions and the sale of unused land, and made credit more accessible, among other things.

In 2020, according to official figures, there were 602,000 self-employed Cubans, some of whom have started their own businesses. About 210,000 of them were women.

In September, current President Miguel Díaz-Canel approved the creation of private companies – something that was once unthinkable after authorities shut down all private companies on the island in 1968.

In the five months since then, a further 1,014 private companies have been licensed, 22% of them for women.

But the theory was put into practice for Ena María Morales, who wanted to grow the plants needed for her business to make all of the handmade organic soaps. She said male farmers resisted their efforts to acquire the raw materials.

“That was my first encounter with a macho world,” she said. “… The men said to me: ‘You with the long hair, no, no, no.'”

Ena MarÌa Morales sells handmade bags, bound paper and herbal soap under her brand “Selva” or Forest at a trade fair with products from women-run companies in Havana, Cuba on December 11, 2021.Ismael Francisco / AP

The Covid-19 pandemic has also been an obstacle for many women who wanted to start their own businesses. With their children at home with canceled schools and husbands or partners marching to work, many struggled to find time for entrepreneurship.

“It’s a very new thing that women are gradually joining and I hope that this will really change soon, because even though we are the directors of the house, there are a lot of women with self-confidence,” says Ana Mae Inda, the children’s clothing sold .

Women of color said race was another difficulty in opening businesses.

“Being a woman and being black means that we face certain barriers not only in the social world, but also within entrepreneurship itself,” said Yurena Manfugás in the clothing store she opened with her mother Deyni Terry Afro-Cuban to serve women.

Terry, a lawyer and women’s activist, said the real problem was Cuba’s social construct.

“The Constitution of the Republic of Cuba continues to speak male. … We come from a totally sexist culture, ”she said.

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