Thursday, March 08, 2007

International Women's Day in Cuba, Bread and Roses Too

by Carolina Cositore;

In 1975 the United Nations gave official recognition to International Women's Day, March 8, which, like International Workers' Day (May 1) has its roots in the union and socialist struggles at the beginning of the last century. Unlike Workers Day that is celebrated in just about every country in the world except the United States, International Women's Day is today only officially celebrated in old soviet bloc nations and China, Vietnam and Cuba.

The day was actually first celebrated in the United States to mark a New York City women's textile protest in 1857 that was repressed by the police and, again in New York on that day in 1908, in a 15,000-strong women's march for labor and voting rights. Demonstrations marking International Women's Day in Russia came at the first stage of the 1917 Russian Revolution, becoming official after the October Bolshevik Revolution.

In Cuba too, the day followed the 1959 revolution and the socialist government's recognition that women were subject to different forms of oppression based on race, sex and class. To create "a real culture of equality," Cuba put its National Development Strategy into practice by calling for "economic and social programs to create and develop economic, political, ideological, legal, educational, cultural and social bases to guarantee equality of rights, opportunities and possibilities for women and men, transforming the conditions of discrimination and subordination under which Cuban women had lived for centuries, and promoting the elimination of traditional stereotypes and a new concept of women's role in society and in the family".

It has worked. The progress of Cuban women within Cuba's social revolutionary project is beyond question. Cuba makes it a priority to incorporate women into high levels of active work and insure they are able to develop and use their abilities. A special function of the Labor and Social Security Ministry is to offer women administrative responsibilities and guarantee them adequate conditions for work.

Women in Cuba receive equal pay as men for the same jobs and enjoy recognized sexual and reproductive rights in very advanced legislation that protects them, universal and free health care and education systems, programs to promote their quality of life as well as their cultural and social advancement and special programs for maternity and child protection.

In addition to the traditional optional one year maternity leave at full pay, in August 2003 State Council Law No.234 came into effect. This is the legal instrument of the Family Code marriage contract: "to attend, care for, protect, educate, help, give profound affection to, and prepare for life" the fruit of their love, sworn to by both potential parents at the marriage ceremony, and a right and duty recognized equally for adoptive parents. The law protects both mothers and fathers who decide by mutual accord that they want to share the child-raising role after the breastfeeding period, without having to worry about irate bosses or job security.

Thus in Cuba, a mother or father can either opt to return to work or remain at home until the baby is one year old and can attend the very low cost daycare facilities. This law also covers up to a six month absence from work, without reprisal, for either parent should one of their children under 16 years of age become ill.

Such a law is important in a country where women are 66 percent of all technicians and professionals, 62 percent of university graduates, more than 44 percent of the work force in the state-civil sector, 36 percent of the members of Congress, and more than 33 percent of all people on management levels are female.

For more impressive statistics: 18 percent of the heads of Cuban Ministries are women, 22.7 percent of assistant ministers, 61 percent of Cuba's attorneys are women, 49 percent of its judges and 47 percent of Supreme Court justices.

All receive equal pay for equal work and position.

Access to education and health services, including sexual and reproductive health, is universal and free. Abortion is free on demand. Women's life expectancy in the Cuban archipelago is 78 years, maternal mortality is 33.9 percent per 100,000 live births and infant mortality is below 6 percent per 1000 live births (the lowest in Latin America and below many sectors of the United States).

The "bread" of the 1912 Massachusetts Lawrence Strike strikers' banner "We want Bread and Roses too!" is assured.

And there are roses too: on March 8 in Cuba, with an undercurrent of social and political awareness of women's struggles worldwide, workplaces and neighborhood FMCs (Federations of Cuban Women) throw parties, and men express their appreciation to the women around them with poems and flowers.

Below is part of James Oppenheim's poem, actually published before the Lawrence Strike and apropos for International Women's Day.

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!

As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women's children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.

As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
hearts starve as well as bodies; bread and roses, bread and roses.


“If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn’t we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?” - Eduardo Galeano