The beginning of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 marked a remarkable political, economic and social change in Latin America's history, especially for Cuban women, who did not just participate in the military victory but also have played a prominent role throughout the building of the socialist nation.
As the revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro believed that the emancipation of women was intrinsically tied to the socialist revolution.
Only one year after the triumph of the revolution, the new government created the Federation of Cuban Women, led by Vilma Espin — committed revolutionary fighter during General Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship and President Raul Castro's partner.
According to professor Salim Lamrani, only 17 percent of Cuban women were working before the revolution and were the main victims of the high rate of illiteracy — which affected almost a quarter of the total population — and the sexist view that confined them to domestic tasks. Despite being granted the right to vote in 1934, they barely participated in politics.
But women strongly mobilized against the dictatorship, forming a women's guerrilla front called “Mariana Grajales” in the Sierra Maestra. Celia Sanchez, Melba Hernandez, Haydee Santamaria and Vilma Espin, emerged as key figures of the revolution, among many others.
When the revolution overthrew the bloody Batista regime tied to U.S. imperialism, women were among the most discriminated sectors to quickly benefit from measures of social justice. The Women's Federation played an active role in defending women's rights, under the strong leadership of Vilma Espin until her death in 2007.
In 1961, the government launched a massive literacy campaign across the country, reaching out especially to women in general and Black women in particular, making Cuba “the first territory free of illiteracy” according to UNESCO in 1961.
The new Cuban constitution consecrated gender equality and condemned any gender or racial discrimination —potentially carrying two years in prison according to the criminal code.
As for reproductive rights, Cuba became the first country to legalize abortion in 1965.
Fidel: A Revolutionary Life
The labor code also strongly protects Cuban women who become mothers, saying that “employers must create and maintain the labor conditions for the woman, considering her participation in the labor process and her social function as a mother.” They are entitled to take a full-paid leave one month and a half before birth, and three months afterward — or up to a year earning 60 percent of her wages.
Women represent about 60 percent of the country's students, and 45 percent of the active population, but over 66 percent of professions such as doctors, researchers and engineers.
In political life, 13 out of 31 members of the state council are women — or 42 percent, with eight women ministers out of 34 — or 23 percent. In parliament, 49 percent are women, making Cuba third in the world in terms of proportion of women lawmakers — the United States for instance ranks 80.
The U.N. recently praised Cuba's policies as one of the top nations in ensuring gender equality and women empowerment.