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The Odyssey of Women’s Rights in Cuba

Although Cuban law protects some women’s rights on paper, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) found in its most recent report on the country that these laws do not offer comprehensive protection that accounts for the distinct experiences of Cuban women, who disproportionately suffer from marginalization and economic hardship in comparison to men. Afro-Cuban, cis-lesbian, and trans women are particularly vulnerable to violations of their economic and social rights.

In its most recent review of Cuba, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) expressed its concern at reports that Afro-Cuban women are facing higher barriers in accessing decent work. Cis-lesbian and trans women also suffer particular difficulties in this regard, including discrimination in the job market. Despite reforms to the Labor Code in 2014 to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, discrimination persists based on gender and gender-role stereotypes. This reform also failed to include gender identity as a protected category, leaving trans women particularly vulnerable.


Meanwhile, the lack of a law guaranteeing and protecting the rights of women victims and survivors of violence puts Cuban women in a higher state of risk. Cuba lacks legal mechanisms to criminalize femicide and protocols for urgent responses to domestic violence, which is often swept aside by authorities who describe the cases simply as “marital disputes.”


In spite of the efforts of independent women’s civil society organizations, the National Assembly did not consider their proposal for an Integral Law against Gender-Based Violence in Cuba. It proposed instead to modify existing laws to include protections for victims of violence. Nonetheless, this is not an adequate response given the scale of the problem faced by women in Cuba, showing a lack of political will on the part of the government.


772 arbitrary detentions of female human rights defenders and independent journalists have been reported in the last six months


Repression, harassment, and the violation of fundamental rights related to freedom of expression, political affiliation, free association, opinion, and the press have been a constant on the part of the Cuban State, which uses its vaguely defined Criminal Code to charge social leaders and opponents of the reigning political regime with “contempt,” “resistance,” “assault,” and “public disorder,” among others.


According to the women’s rights organization, Plataforma Femenina, “Many women activists are victims of arbitrary detentions, physical violence, threats and defamation, among other violations, on a daily basis.” The Cuban State uses arbitrary detentions particularly against women in order to prevent their exercise of the rights to political participation, freedom of association and peaceful assembly, as well as limit their freedom of expression. By doing so, the Cuban state hopes to dissuade women from human rights advocacy.


In the last six months (from August 2019 to January 2020), there have been 772 arbitrary detentions of women  and in 2019 there were a total of 1,531 arbitrary detentions of women, registered in 14 out of the 15 provinces in Cuba.


The majority of the women detained are affiliated with the Ladies in White movement or the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) group. However, many other women belonging to civil society organizations, as well as independent journalists, artists, and religious leaders, have been victims of arbitrary detentions.


Women activists are subjected to cruel treatment during detention. According to information documented by the Ladies in White, after being detained, activists are taken in police cars to different units of the National Revolutionary Police while being forced into uncomfortable positions. In some instances, State Security Officers – both male and female – sit alongside the activist and do things like place their legs on top of them, force them to bend and place their head between their legs so as to not see where they are being taken, and even ram their elbows against their backs.


At least 6 women are political prisoners of the Cuban State


Although repression against human rights defenders, journalists and other political activists is common in Cuba, its distinct impact on women is seldomly discussed.  According to the Cuban Observatory for Human Rights, there were 3,157 arbitrary detentions in 2019, of which 1,531 were of women. Currently, there are at least six female political prisoners in Cuba, according to information catalogued by the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights (Race and Equality.)


The majority of female political prisoners were detained and convicted of a crime after participating in a peaceful protest or because they were expressing their opinions against the government. Four of the six women were charged with contempt for having threatened, insulted or somehow offended a public servant. Contempt is one of the charges most often used by the Cuban state to criminalize the act of protesting, criticizing state police and inquiring the reasons behind a detention.


All six female political prisoners, as well as others detained for shorter periods of time, are subjected to deplorable conditions while in detention. According to interviews with activists or activists’ family members, while in prison, women identified as dissidents are subjected to differential treatment and their rights as prisoners are frequently violated. They are not given adequate medical attention, and State agents routinely try to intimidate them into renouncing their activism. According to the women’s organization Plataforma Femenina, telephone and family visit privileges are oftentimes taken away as punishment and women are even held in punishment cells if they speak about their activist activities or against the government.

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