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Cuba: Women and the low fertility rate


Under the title ‘My body belongs to me: Reflections on the media’s treatment of Cuba’s low birthrate’, the young journalist Helen Hernández Hormilla circulated her opinions on the issue, motivated by a discussion of low fecundity on the Cuba Speaks portion of the main TV news bulletin on April 29.

Helen Hernández. Photo credit:‘I am fed up of hearing through the Cuban media, the view of journalists, specialists and even national leaders that women are responsible for the country’s low fecundity,’ said Hernández Hormilla.

Among other examples that, in her opinion, were badly handled when the topic was televised, the journalist questioned how ‘as in other materials of this type, the subject of birth is emphasised as purely a matter for women’.

Five or more pregnant women and mothers were interviewed, Hernández Hormilla observed, while only one young father was consulted, solely on economic aspects, and a doctor from the Programa Materno Infantil was interviewed as a specialist. 

 ‘Rather than questions such as the economic crisis, the housing situation, the different generations being required to live together, external emigration and other factors that determine why there are fewer babies born in Cuba, they decide to emphasise the social advancement of women as the cause of the conflict,’ the journalist states.

The right to abortion

 For Hernández Hormilla, what was most disconcerting about the programme was to hear a first-time mother advise other women not to have an abortion ‘because they won’t see how nice it is to have a child’.

Hernández Hormilla defends the right to an abortion as a gain won by Cuban women, ‘something that many of our feminist sisters have fought for in other parts of the world, because regrettably, there are governments that still deny women the right to be autonomous human beings, to make decisions about their bodies’.

Far from helping, ‘this ideal of sublimated maternity, absolute, being held solely responsible, could be one of the factors that influences young Cuban women to postpone the decision to procreate and even to reject it’, contends the young journalist in her commentary, which was quickly reproduced on various blogs, alternative spaces, communication media and social networks.

For Nelia Casada, television editor, there is a need for ‘a permanent assessment of the treatment of gender issues in any programme that tackles them, so that our media do not continue to air these blinkered views again and again.

An extensive reflection on this question is offered by Reina Fleitas, a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Havana, who agreed with all Hernández Hormilla’s arguments. ‘Effectively there is no discussion of the subject from the perspective of women and their interests. But this is not the only theme that is absent: one could add breast feeding and so many other subjects,’ Fleitas says.

The absence of a female perspective in politics is responsible for this, according to the professor, who is also worried that ‘they take decisions on the basis of an analysis of the impact of aging of Cuban society, while very little has been said about the repercussions of this for women (the majority of them elderly and carers).

Keen to study male behaviour with regard to reproduction and to get them to acknowledge their duties in this area, Professor Fleitas also considers it necessary to create the conditions for women to have a stress-free maternity, which should not mean that women have to drop everything to have children.

Working women

The low birth rate cannot be attributed solely to women going out to work, because women who do not work have also reduced the number of children they aspire to and have, she argues.

For her, it is to do with changes in the culture of maternity in Cuba – the concepts of welfare that we have created for bringing up our children and the enormous difficulty of bringing this about.

‘Thus the view is skewed because they blame women: they don’t see it as a question of their rights, they always see it as ‘their’ duty, as understtod by others, not by women’ she maintains.

The polemic and reactions to it have even provoked a letter from the journalist and feminist activist Lirians Gordilla Piña addressed to the team responsible for the television programme Cuba Speaks, although she has not yet had any response.

‘I agree with the complaint of my colleague and friend. Although the programme’s title presupposes an effort by the production team to visualize the plurality and complexities of our nation, the programme Cuba Speaks made about the birth rate was far removed from the reality of the lives of Cuban men and women today’ Gordilla points out.

In her opinion, it isn’t the development of women that’s holding the birth rate back, but the design of a society that is geared towards patriarchal domination.

Meanwhile, Georgina Alfonso, Director of the Institute of Philosophy, notes that this ‘is an excellent illustration of the need to being feminists more decisively into the discussion and decision making forums where they can insist on an analysis which considers all the relevant viewpoints’.

The researcher affirms that maternity is a social responsibility and that to present it otherwise, whether as a private or public matter, reduces the topic to a mere question of relations between the sexes’.

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