21 June 2000

Women’s Anti-Discrimination Committee Concludes
Consideration of Cuba’s Fourth Periodic Report

NEW YORK, 19 June (UN Headquarters) – The mutually reinforcing role played by the State and Cuban women themselves in achieving gains in the face of the economic embargo placed on that country by the United States were to be applauded, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was told this afternoon. In that light, however, the persistence of stereotypical attitudes in Cuban society was particularly disturbing.

As the Committee concluded its consideration of Cuba’s fourth periodic report on compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, several experts expressed concern that reports of the negative effects of so-called "machismo culture" were on the rise. That was reflected in the increase in sexual harassment cases, as well as verbal and psychological violence. Had there been any in-depth studies into the extent of that phenomenon? an expert asked. Another expert wondered if studies had been conducted to measure the impact of gender mainstreaming policies on Cuba’s "machismo culture".

Addressing the Committee’s concerns, Carolina Aguilar, Director of the Women’s Editorial, said that there had been significant progress in promoting balanced images of women. In Cuba, the media had been an important ally in encouraging and promoting change and a new concept regarding the traditional roles of women. One relevant event was the adoption of a National Action Plan, which made it legally incumbent on the press to respect and implement measures that would help to eliminate traditional stereotypes.

Ms. Aguilar went on to say, however, that negative stereotypical attitudes were a serious cultural problem. While those attitudes would be difficult to change, Cuba would try to enhance the individual dignity of men and women and have harmonious development of all human beings. In that regard, the conceptual changes now taking place had been broadly accepted by the country’s youth.

Several experts also expressed concern about the report’s lack of detailed information on HIV/AIDS in Cuba. With the rising trend of prostitution, an expert asked, had there been a study of HIV/AIDS rates? Had there been an increase in those rates, as well? Another expert asked for the trends for HIV-infection among women?

Maria Cecila Salana Espinos said that HIV-testing was carried out on a voluntary basis. It was also offered as a diagnosis for all patients. For example, pregnant women could undergo testing. It was not mandatory. It was important to note, however, that the main violation of human rights was the economic blockade of her country, which often hindered access to fundamental medications. The pharmaceutical industry with Cuba would soon start producing those drugs, giving greater security to patients.

The Committee will meet again at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, 20 June, to commence consideration of Cameroon’s initial periodic report.

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this afternoon to continue its consideration of the fourth periodic report of Cuba’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It was expected to hear further comments and questions by the Committee’s expert members, as well as responses by the Cuban delegation. [For background information, see Press Release WOM/1222 issued today.]

Response by Cuba

CAROLINA AGUILAR, Director of the Women’s Editorial, said that the idea of achieving a balanced image of women had made significant progress. In today’s world, the mass media played an important role. In Cuba, the media had been an ally in encouraging and promoting change and a new concept regarding the traditional roles of women. One relevant event was the adoption of a National Action Plan which made it legally incumbent on the press to respect and implement measures that would help to eliminate traditional stereotypes. It also called for greater participation of women within the mass media.

She said that another factor was the establishment of a multidisciplinary group to follow-up on the Beijing Platform for Action. It would study how women were seen and reported on so that further thought could be given to the message the media was providing. Cuba had modernized all the mass media that had suffered in the early 1990s as the result of the crisis in that country. It had, for example, introduced updated technologies in the electronic media. All that helped to open things up for women. Women were more often covered in the media. A recent survey showed that the number of times that women were covered in the media had increased, leading to a qualitative change in coverage.

Regarding training for professionals in communications media, updating qualifications was essential, she continued. Journalists, both men and women, were encouraged in gender training, so that they could enrich their product significantly and give more coverage to women. Communication groups had been established that included people in the arts, cinema, radio, television and writers. The media had been prolific in covering and reflecting that concept of gender. In September, when the school year begins, the curricula in the social communications sectors would be revised. Gender would be included as a focus for analysis.

On the issue of stereotypes, she said that much had been done to eliminate sexist stereotypes from advertising in Cuba. The way in which women were often portrayed was not always very flattering. It was important that stereotypes be eliminated. Cuba had often been a victim of aggression and that had been seen through the media.

RODOLFO REYES RODRIGUEZ, Bureau of Multilateral Affairs, Ministry for Foreign Affairs, said that equal pay for equal work was fully guaranteed. Salaries were completely public. Women comprised a major part of the workforce. The posts that they held were among the best paid. In response to the question of access to credit, full facilities were in place for rights to credit. There were two kinds of credits -- regular credit and the credit for social interests. Credit with a social dimension was applied in the countryside. As for women in business, some 30 per cent of entrepreneurs were women. In the mercantile sector, Cuba was trying to involve more women through training and educational programmes. Many of the graduates of those programmes were women.

He said that there was a certain disparity in access to "dollar-paying" work. The dollar had opened up a major programme area. Cuba was trying to make sure that the disparity did not grow wider. It sought to achieve social equity and fairness. One effort to improve remuneration of highly qualified people was the incentive, given in dollars, as a form of government subsidy. Salaries were difficult to calculate. Seventy per cent of those highly qualified people received government subsidies and did not have to look for other sources of income. Family food allowances were also provided.

He said that with regard to the possibility of enjoying full freedom, such freedom was a fact. Tourists could attest to that. It was a fact that the Government provided incentives. Cuba had gone through a crisis, but it had made every effort to ensure that women got adequate remuneration. Moreover, unemployment among young women was not high. When you compared women and men, young women did have higher qualifications than young men of the same age. It was more difficult for them to find employment. Government subsidies guaranteed remuneration. The Federation of Cuban Women was playing a major role in encouraging women to complete their education. It depended on the will of the individual. While some employers did seek to attract men instead of women, if the practice was discovered, it was punished as a criminal offense.

Comments and Questions by Experts

An expert said that the Committee needed a better explanation of the types of programmes Cuba had in place. What were the priorities of the objectives or strategies geared towards implementation of specific articles of the Convention? What work had been done in the area of quotas aimed at equalizing gender in the workplace?

There could also perhaps have been more focus on statistics about the situation of rural women in Cuba. Did they have access to social security? Another experts wanted to know more about the various "cooperatives" in which rural women worked. Did those cooperatives affect the rights of rural women?

Another expert wondered if there was a law in place to address trafficking in women? She also wondered how the Cuban penal code sanctions prostitution, on one hand, and punishes it on the other as being anti-social behaviour? Had the Government considered rehabilitation for prostitutes? She also felt that there needed to be clarification on Cuba’s policies concerning teenage pregnancy. Another expert wanted to know if there were awareness-raising programmes to combat teen pregnancy.

She also wanted to know what steps had been instituted to address reproductive health beyond couples? Were there any programmes to address violence against elderly women? She also wanted to know if studies had been conducted to measure the impact of gender mainstreaming policies on Cuba’s so-called "machismo culture".

Another expert said that she would like to be enlightened further on the role of the Federation of Cuban Women. She also congratulated Cuba as one of the few countries that had enacted practices following Beijing. She wanted to know, however, about the follow-up measures of some of those laws. If certain provisions of Beijing had not been satisfied, what action would the Government take? She went on to say that there was no clear position on domestic violence. The same could be said about prostitution. If there were no clear laws on prostitution, women would continue to be drawn into that profession.

Several representatives expressed their admiration for what Cuba had achieved in the face of the embargo. The mutually reinforcing role played by the State and, indeed, women themselves in achieving gains in education and economics were to be applauded. In that light, the persistence of stereotypical roles in Cuba was particularly disturbing.

That was reflected in the increase in what had been termed verbal and psychological violence, one expert said. That type of abuse was a violation of women’s human rights, and needed to be recognized as such and addressed with appropriate programmes and measures. Had there also been an increase of verbal and psychological abuse by mothers against children? What were the factors that drove women to commit such violence against their children? Some studies had shown that women did that sort of thing when they were abused themselves. In any case, had there been any in-depth studies into the extent of the phenomenon? Had there been any Government action to combat sexual harassment or less visible forms of violence against women?

Turning to the subject on non-governmental organizations, an expert wished to know how the wide variety of organizations working in Cuba were funded, particularly in light of the countries severe economic difficulties? On the subject of education, she wondered how textbooks and teaching materials were updated to include gender perspective under the country’s financial restraints. If textbooks were handed down, or recycled from one student to another, was there an opportunity to include new attitudes on women and girls?

With the rising trend of prostitution, another representative asked, had there been a study of HIV/AIDS rates? Had there been an increase in those rates, as well? She was also very concerned about the suicide rate of the elderly in Cuba and she implored the delegation to conduct further studies to combat the phenomenon.

Response by Cuba

SOLEDAD DIAZ, President of the Science and Technology Agency, Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment, said that the comments were a great incentive.

MAGALYS AROCHA DOMINGUEZ, Secretary of Foreign Relations of the Federation of Cuban Women, said that in response to questions on women’s health, the health of women and children had been a concern for Cuba from before the revolution. In 1960 a programme for women’s and children’s health was created. Since Beijing, a programme for sexual and reproductive health was adopted. That included dissemination of information on reproductive health, family planning, reproductive and sexual risks, prenatal and post-natal health risks, abortion, infertility and HIV/AIDS. All those aspects were part and parcel of sexual health. The matter of abortion continued to be a concern for Cuba. While the rates were still rather high, they reflected a considerable decline. That was true among adolescent women. Channels of communication within family structures were still sometimes blocked concerning sexual health.

She said that the Ministry of Health tried to stay in close touch with the people. On the question of AIDS, although Cuba did not have alarming figures, there was some increase. In the special case of women, their behaviour had been less significant than that of men, and the growth rate had been far less. AIDS was a health problem facing all society; as such, society-wide bodies must come to grips with the problem. From the beginning, an integrated health evaluation system had been established, but those efforts had been impeded by the economic crisis. Education at a wide range of levels was provided throughout the country.

On the issue of suicide, she said that the figures reflected a declining trend in recent years. Two thirds of women who committed suicide were 55 years old. A working group had looked into the issue. The prevalent preconditioning factor was that retirement had occurred. The retirement age was 55. Sometimes, there was no definite life plan for the post-retirement years. Added family work burdens and the fact that older women faced the loss of spouses contributed to those suicide figures.

In response to questions raised about violent attitudes of mothers towards their children, she said the distinguishing feature of the Cuban mother was overprotectiveness, which hampered the development of the child. That involved not only food and other tangible forms of care, but also emotional overprotectiveness. Violence by mothers against children was not the kind of thing that one would run into every day. Yet, mothers were under a great deal of stress. The blockade had hit the Cuban people hard, particularly women. Although the embargo placed a great deal of strain on families, Cuban children were generally cheerful.

OLGA MIRANDA, Legal Counsellor of the Ministry of Tourism, assured the Committee that sexual harassment was addressed in Cuba’s penal code. Punishment by imprisonment of up to three years or a hefty fine was meted out to anyone who had "sexually harassed another". That law also dealt with pornography. Other provisions of the penal code addressed sexual harassment by authority figures or employers in "abuse of power" or other workplace situations. Aggravating factors in the sexual harassment laws included prior knowledge of sexually transmittable diseases by the perpetrator, and mental deficiency or retardation of the victim.

She went on to say that since 1997 there were also laws in the penal code that addressed inducing another to indulge in prostitution. Violence was addressed on many levels, but Cuba’s policy for protection of minors against violence or "sexual aggression" was of particular note. Interference with a child’s education was also subject to punishment. Trafficking in children was punishable by up to five years, and the sentence increased depending on the particulars of the situation. Procurement was also punished in the penal code.

SONIA BERETERVIDE DOPICO said that, apart form legal remedies on prostitution, awareness-raising and information programmes were also in place at the national level. Those programmes also involved the work of the Government, with the help of non-governmental organizations and community groups, as those organizations might better reach grass-roots constituents. It was also important to note that there were many programmes in place to rehabilitate prostitutes and reinsert them into society. In that regard, social workers were trained to consider the situations of entire families, as well as the economic situations of the girls themselves.

Cuba’s National Centre for Sex Education had also been involved in that area, she continued. The work of the Centre went beyond prostitution, however, and provided programmes on teen sexual and reproductive health. Doctors and other representatives from medicine provided help in that area.

It was also important to note that in Cuba violence against women was now, to some degree, being considered a health issue, particularly domestic violence. In fact, the Ministry of Health had begun to disseminate information and statistics on domestic violence. With the help of the media, law enforcement officials and others involved at the grass-roots level, much work was being done to educate and train people about the issue of domestic violence.

MARIA CECILIA SANLANA ESPINOS said that prostitution was not representative of those cases of AIDS that had been reported. While there were instances in which women were AIDS carriers, it was not such a significant figure. Homosexual and bisexual men between the ages of 15 and 25 accounted for the largest number of AIDS cases. As regards drug addiction, that was an issue which was being carefully watched. The high-quality tobacco Cuba produced had had an impact on the culture in terms of fostering early consumption of tobacco products. Cuba had taken decisions at the highest level to deal with that issue in technical terms. Cuba had also worked hand in hand with international organizations on that issue. As experience was gained, other sectors of society would also come into play. A set of indicators would also soon be established.

She said that alcoholism was not a pronounced problem in Cuba. In recent years, there had been increased awareness of the impact of the tourism industry and the transport of drugs through the country because of it. Cuba had been preparing the country for such an issue through two national key centres. Cuba had trained professional teams, with the help of international agencies, to deal with the problem.

Ms. AROCHA DOMINGUEZ said that in 1996, subsequent to the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action, the Federation of Cuban Women held a conference with the participation of experts and key organizers, and prepared a range of levels and actions to be embodied in the plan. Many of the measures put forward in Beijing had become a fact of life for Cuban women. Many other goals were yet to be obtained. The issues of advancement of women to higher levels of employment and women in the mass media were in line with further refinement of Cuban policy for the advancement of women. Another issue was the matter of legislation. The issue of reproductive health required a gender-based approach. The obstacles that still faced Cuba were related to training to execute the action plan, securing women faculty heads and training government cadres to come to grips with the issues.

She said that each ministry was required to report on how far the plan had been implemented. From 1997 on, it was a forward-looking plan. The recently concluded General Assembly session dealt with the 12 critical areas of the Beijing Platform. The Government knew it must continue to work to make sure it became a reality in the future. As regards the Federation, it was a broad-based organization that evolved in the 1960s. The magnitude of the organization conferred the great strength given it. Since its inception, the Federation channelled the spirit of women throughout Cuba to achieve social equity. It contributed to taking women out of the home and into teaching, inter-community work, and active involvement in economic, political and social life. The Federation had fine tuned its work, and had been building over the past 40 years through a feedback mechanism.

The Cuban Government coincided with the legitimate aspirations of the Federation and relied on its expertise, she said. The Federation had acquired consultative status as a non-governmental organization with the Economic and Social Council. That enabled it to play a relevant role in the international arena.

Also on the issue of machismo and stereotypical attitudes, Ms. AGUILAR said that changes in the Government and non-governmental organizations were now occurring at the conceptual level. That sort of change took hold much more slowly than changes in the socio-economic arena. After 40 years of traditional attitudes, there was now a broad range of ideas emerging. A growing group of young women and men had absorbed those new ideas in theory and practice.

Negative stereotypical attitudes were a serious cultural problem, she continued. While those attitudes would be difficult to change, Cuba would try to enhance the individual dignity of men and women and have a harmonious development of all human beings. Aiding that process would be the various departments of women’s affairs at schools and universities. Academics were now involved at all levels, and the society was now being educated in the area of gender studies, not just women’s studies.

HORTENCIA CARDOZA PEREIRA said that the situation of rural women was a very real concern, because they were traditionally relegated to the more marginalized areas in any society. In Cuba, following the revolution, the Government had instituted many projects involving a complete transformation of the rural sectors. Laws on agriculture and land ownership had proved instrumental in that regard. Cuba was still trying to transform the rural sector and provide better access to modern science and technology in order to increase production. The agricultural cooperatives had produced a growing number of women now owning land. There had also been social progress, such as training courses for both men and women in rural areas. It was important to note that the benefits of agrarian laws of the past could now be passed on to surviving spouses and children. Most often, however, there was a tendency to let sons take over the land once fathers had died.

Ms. BERETERVIDE DOPICO said that despite economic problems, literacy levels in Cuba had been maintained. There were also programmes that addressed adult literacy, particularly for housewives. Bringing housewives into the classrooms was important, since it might allow them to get better jobs with better pay, thus, reversing stereotypes and enhancing their independence. Rural women were encouraged to remain in school through the twelfth grade. Teachers were often sent in to rural areas for six months at a time to address that concern.

Questions and Comments by Experts

An expert asked, what was the impact of all the laws, policies, programmes and institutional mechanisms that Cuba had in place? Cuba had provided no firm data. The Committee’s general recommendation requested States parties to provide firm data. The Committee needed measurable outcomes. It was not just a question of knowing the laws, but knowing how they were enforced. The laws were all very well, but what had been the effect?

On the issue of HIV/AIDS, there was no sex disaggregated data on the causes of morbidity and mortality, in general. As Cuba’s oral report indicated, AIDS education programmes were in place. However, what were the trends for women in terms of HIV infection? From the information provided in Cuba’s report, various studies were conducted in Cuba to identify high-risk groups, vulnerable groups and "zones of risk". What were the high risk groups? What had Cuba identified? Cuba said that prostitutes were not at high risk. That was puzzling, since, globally, prostitutes were at high risk. How was the prevention programme affected by Cuba’s own report that there was a shortage of condoms in the country. On testing and treatment, there had been a degree of concern in the international health community on that issue. Given the problems with pharmaceuticals, were retroviral drugs available? How did Cuba treat someone who was detected to have the virus?

World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on AIDS and human rights said that the principles of human rights must be observed, an expert said. How was the privacy of the individual protected? How was confidentially observed? What anti-discrimination laws were in place, if the main infection was in the male gay community. The WHO guidelines prohibited mandatory testing. What was the situation in Cuba? There had been reports of sanatoriums to treat the HIV infected. Were they confined in those institutions? Were they treated in those institutions? Did they die there?

Another expert said that, on article 3 to recognize women’s human rights, it was at times when a country faced crisis that there was a need for the free flow of information and limitation on censorship. The credibility of a government relied on that. Despite high social indicators, women did not surface in high- management positions. In addition to issues of awareness-raising, there should still be a role for a policy that caregiving was a joint social responsibility. Given all the equity, what held women back was the fact that the society imposed the care-giving role on women alone. Laws and policy did not recognize it as a joint responsibility. With regard to laws on divorce by consent, how did it work in practice?

Another expert asked if Cuba was making a specific effort to overcome the domination of one sex in one employment sector versus another employment sector. Women would be vulnerable if they clustered in certain economic areas. Was there any preferential treatment for female unemployed? What kind of jobs did women hold in the mixed and trading sector? Were there quotas to increase the number of women in the economic sector? She was also confused about the term housewife. Why was the term used? Was there a percentage of able-bodied women under pension age who were not in any sort of employment? What was their situation with regard to social benefits? What was the percentage of unmet demands regarding childcare?

Another expert asked when there would possibly be a chance to hold a census. On the situation of detained women, what happened to the children?

Response by Cuba

Ms. SANLANA ESPINOS said that statistics on mortality rates by age groups was available. Regarding prostitution and whether it constituted a high level of risk, she had stated earlier that, statistically speaking, it was a small group when considering the prevalence of HIV in the country. Detailed information was available. Regarding the sale of condoms, there had been problems in that area. At present, the marketing of condoms was a priority of a government group.

HIV testing was carried out on a voluntary basis, she said. It was also offered as a diagnosis for all patients. For example, pregnant women could undergo testing. It was not mandatory. Regarding hospitals, they were very special. The main violation of human rights was the economic blockade. People with AIDS were in sanatoriums on a voluntary basis. The fundamental medications have been difficult to obtain. The pharmaceutical industry would soon start producing those drugs, giving greater security to patients. Sex practices of individuals were fully respected. Social groups were not discriminated against. Prevention and education work was still carried out.

Mr. REYES RODRIGUEZ said that prostitution was not considered a crime in Cuba and, therefore, prostitutes were not penalized or put in prison. While prostitution was considered anti-social behaviour, it was not considered a "hazard". It was an act that was socially rejected, but not considered a crime. He also said that Cuba did not consider prostitution an economic phenomenon, but one of moral values. Therefore, most strategies focused on prevention.

As for the treatment of persons with AIDS, he said that Cuba was in the process of implementing the best curative treatments. Many of the medications that had been halted by the blockade were now being produced within the country. Finally, he said that within Cuba there was the greatest freedom of exchange of information. There was also a great amount of political plurality, despite the fact that there was only one rule of law. All citizens had the broadest opportunity to present complaints whenever their rights had been violated.

Ms. DIAZ added that profound changes were taking place in Cuba and that the advancement of women was a top priority. As to sensitive issues like HIV/AIDS, she said that Cuba was carrying out extensive research in that field.

In a closing statement, the Committee Chairperson, AIDA GONZALEZ MARTINEZ (Mexico), expressed gratitude to the Cuban delegation for the extensive work that had gone into its presentation. She reiterated the Committee’s foremost concerns -- violence, violence against women, and family violence -- and noted that there should be a greater awareness among all social actors as to exactly what "violence" constituted. She also expressed the Committee’s concern for the plight of women working in the informal sector. She urged the Cuban delegation to protect the society from the scourge of HIV/AIDS and wished them success in producing drugs to combat the disease.

Finally, she applauded Cuba’s establishment of a National Plan of Action to ensure implementation of gender policies. She welcomed the fact that Cuba had signed the Optional Protocol, which brought the number of ratifications to four. She hoped that would spark other signatures in the near future.

* * * * *