In the neighborhood of Cayo Hueso everyone knew her as “the woman with the machete slashes.” You didn’t have to get too close to see the scars on her arms. These marks for life were made one night when her husband returned home with more alcohol than patience and, machete in hand, went after her. He was in prison for a couple of years and afterwards returned to the same tenement room where the fight had been. “He didn’t have any place else to live and the police didn’t get him out of here,” she said, apologetically. Gender violence creates an unknown number of victims every day in Cuba, but the statistics on these acts are not made public.
For weeks now, marking the 55th anniversary of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), we’ve had to hear on television and in the official press the numbers of women who have achieved administrative positions, who are at the helm of a company, a part of Parliament or who have managed to graduate from college. They stuff us full of only some of the numbers, to show that the women’s emancipation has reached this country, while remaining silent on the data about the dark side of reality, where the man commands and the woman obeys.
For a couple of years now I have been talking in a climate of trust with at least eight women friends, all of them graduates of higher education, with professions in the humanities and a certain economic autonomy. Most of them confess to having been beaten by their husband at least once, a couple of them have suffered rape within marriage, and three have had to flee “with just the clothes on their backs” to avoid domestic violence. Most alarming is that they tell these stories with the equanimity of “this is what we get for being women.”
They stuff us full of only some of the numbers, to show that the women’s emancipation has reached this country, while remaining silent on the data about the dark side of reality, where the man commands and the woman obeys.
If we move away from Havana, the problem worsens and takes on connotations of tragedy. It burns you up to hear about the humiliations women experience, the wife battering that is a much more common practice than is admitted in the statistics. Odieti, a peasant from a little village lost in the Cienfuegos countryside, drank a bottle of India ink to put an end to the ordeal her husband subjected her to. After hours of suffering, her life was saved and she earned the next beating for “being loose.” This is what he repeated while whipping his belt against her back.
Living in a country where there is no female circumcision or forced marriages, where women are not forbidden to drive a car, is not sufficient reason to breathe easily and believe that the serious problem of gender inequality is resolved. To display the numbers regarding professional development, integration into the workforce, and the responsibilities of millions of women throughout the island, doesn’t silence the drama so many of them are mired in.
They need to display other statistics. Those that reveal the number of kicks that fall on women’s breasts, backs and faces each week. They should clearly publicize the number of victims who have gone to a police station begging them to keep the abuser away from home and who find only a yawning duty officer who says, “you have to take care of that between the two of you.”
Where do they keep the inventory of the suicides, or of the suicide attempts, because of the indignities suffered at the hands of an abusive man?
They also need the numbers of those who are “slaves” to the stove after a full work day outside the home and it would probably match the four million number of members that the FMC boasts about. The numbers of single and divorced women with ridiculous pensions that aren’t enough to feed a child for even a week. Who includes these in the numbers reported to official journalists? And what about those whose partners have threatened, “If you leave me I will kill you”? Where do they show up in the statistics? How many have had their faces cut with a knife like one “brands” a cow, so that everyone will know they belong to the male, the man, the masculine, who cheats on them with so many others?
Where do they keep the inventory of the suicides, or of the suicide attempts, because of the indignities suffered at the hands of an abusive man? What is the number of those who have been harassed by a jealous boyfriend who follows them everywhere and beats them and causes public scandals? How many have to give in to pressures for sex from their bosses at work, because they know there is no other way to get ahead professionally? And what about the number who are harassed on the streets by those who think it is a virile obligation to accost a woman, touch her, to insinuate himself all the time?
We can only be proud of what has been achieved with regards to the dignity of women when we can begin to solve all these evils, evils that right now cannot even be publicly debated. Having autonomous women’s organizations is essential to achieve these demands. Shelters for abused women, a legal framework that forcefully penalizes the abuser, and a press that reflects the suffering of so many, are essential if we are to leave such atrocities in the past.