By Rachel Francis for RATB
Left: After her death in 2007, Vilma Espin was voted the 'eternal president' of the FMC at their eighth congress, and the logo which is seen all over the country now bears her image.
Above: The brigade meets Mirtha Lopez and Caroline Amador at the FMC in Havana.
'We are always improving. We began in 1959 and we haven't finished.' Mirtha Lopez (FMC)
Mirtha Lopez, Caroline Amador, and other members of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) were clear; their mass organisation is driving equality forward at every level of society, and it must work hard to do so. The FMC, throughout the process of the Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP), has focused its work in order to respond to the current needs of women and their communities. Members explained that their primary task is to defend the revolution, the process which enables society to work towards equality. Their deep and humbling commitment to building socialism and equality, their political will, is an inspiration and a crucial advance in changing society for women around the world.
In February 2012, the 'Justice for the Cuban 5' brigade met members of the FCM at the Casa de Orientacion for women and the family in Plaza de la Revolucion municipality, Havana. The Casa is one of 174 houses in the country where women come for meetings, child care, support in pregnancy, sexual health, family mediation and support for age specific issues. The first Casa was built in the 1990s during the special period, and there is now one in every municipality. They are crucial to the work of the FMC because the community is the basis of the organisation, the foundation from which its decisions, organisation, work and achievements stem. In a room covered in beautiful paintings, banners celebrating women and posters calling for health awareness and respect, the FMC representatives explained how their organisation functions: Four million women in Cuba are affiliated, bringing together generations of women. All members are connected to other mass organisations in Cuba such as the Cuban Workers Federation (CTC) and Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR’s). Importantly these organisations are integrated - if a woman is pregnant she can receive help from the FMC, her local family doctor, the maternity home, her workplace, her local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR), all of which can provide specialist support whilst working together, made possible by the organisation of society.
This interconnectedness enabled the FMC to play a critical role in the mass discussions before the CCP Congress, informing their work based on the outcomes. Accordingly, they have developed four focuses in order to respond to challenges in Cuban society: work with young and teenage women; women who are unemployed; older adults; legislation and the family code. Their key aim s are to ensure no women are isolated within society, to promote democracy in the family, and to end the culture of machismo. This culture of male domination still exists, particularly within the family, but the FMC are working to challenge it at this level. Mirtha Lopez explained to us that Cuba’s young men are now realising that challenging sexism it is not just the problem or task of women, younger generations are beginning to join forces in this struggle. Central to challenging sexism and all inequality, is the FMC's focus on financial independence for women - they offer training courses, as well as support and advice on legal and employment rights in order to liberate women from dependency. In stark contrast to the attacks on women and working class families in rich imperialist Britain (FRFI 225 women hardest hit by the cuts), a Cuban woman who cares for her disabled child is paid the wage of her previous job, and she receives holiday and sick pay, as well as a pension, in recognition of her work.
Young women, and the future generations are a current key focus for the FMC. Earlier this year, experienced and younger members met together at the Casa we visited, and the FMC asked two questions: 'how do you see the FMC? And what do you want it to be?’ They discovered that young women love the FMC, and are determined to raise their voices through it demanding that young men should be involved in the battle for equality. The focus on young women is essential in the development of the next generation of leaders, building upon the successes already gained: The statistics speak for themselves, women make up 73% of the technically qualified workforce in Cuba and in the municipalities more than half the representatives in the system of Popular Power are women. Yet the struggle continues and in every organisation we visited, people were striving for more equality, and deeper democracy. Noel Carrillo from the Central Committee of the CCP confirmed, ‘more women must be in leadership positions of the Communist Party’. However, he was clear that this would not be achieved tokenistically through quotas, but through tackling the problem at its cause. The party will strive for the best cadres, but all should be given the opportunity to strive to achieve. The same sentiment and ambition was expressed by the FMC.
Whilst driving progress and celebrating achievements of young women, there was also immense pride and reflection on the organisation's past; lessons learnt, fond stories, celebrating the women who have struggled at the heart of the revolution. The FMC was the first mass organisation established after the triumph of the revolution, and the first property handed over under the new Agrarian Reform Law was to a black woman, in recognition that black women were the most impoverished and oppressed prior to the revolution. The vast majority of women were excluded before the revolution, with a 53% illiteracy rate –the reality of life for women before the revolution is not forgotten by the younger members today. The struggles and work of the special period are also remembered: when some nurseries had no food or water, the FMC responded by creating a collective programme to care for children, meaning that women were not forced back into the home due to childcare. Children were prioritised during difficult times; toys were passed on by the FMC when children grew out of them, and books were fixed - sensible, organised practices that still remain today. The small scraps of soap women were struggling to wash their clothes with were collected into one big bar in each community by FMC activists who organised the laundry collectively. In this way individual women organised together in the FMC to share the burden and solve problems collectively. Caroline Amador was clear, this was their political will, the only way that they survived the crisis of the special period.
Solidarity and internationalism accompany the past and present work of the FMC. They have a long history of solidarity with Palestinian women and women facing oppression around the world, relating all struggles politically. When fighting violence against women and arbitrary detention, they relate the struggle to that of the Cuban 5 and their wives, speaking out at the UN on all these questions, as well as against the blockade. They are currently working closely with ALBA countries through the gender committee, particularly Venezuelan representatives, sharing exchanges, workshops and seminars with other revolutionary women.
Past brigades have visited the FMC, and it was a visit we looked forward to after hearing so much about Cuban women's resilience, creativity and centrality to the revolution. The February 2012 visit to the FMC was even more inspiring to experience for ourselves, we found an organisation actively working to change society, working from the community upwards to strive for equality. They told us they made mistakes - but that it was up to them to improve things, to solve the problems themselves, and that it could be achieved because of the revolution -'Cuba is a different political system, a socialist system, one that is concerned with social justice.' Within this system, the membership of the FMC is an active force in fighting for equality and a just society, and their political will is their strength - and they are certainly using it to set an impressive example to women fighting for justice around the world.