HAVANA (AP) — Screams, insults and confinement: that was what Diana endured in the seven years before she ended a relationship with her boyfriend.
Though she knew there were institutions and programs in Cuba that handled cases of violence against women, she didn’t reach out to any of them. She had no faith that they could really protect her.
“It’s not just getting beaten. Violence is (also) not speaking to you, ignoring you, restricting you. It was this horrible, extreme level of control,” the 37-year-old woman, an employee at a state institution, told The Associated Press. “I don’t know why I couldn’t get out of it, flee, find a proper solution.”
Diana asked that her last name not be published because she was afraid for her safety.
In recent years, visibility of violence against women in Cuba has grown thanks in large part to social media and rising feminist activism. Yet there is no recent public data on acts of femicide, because Cuban law doesn’t recognize it as a separate crime; intead, it lumps it in with all aggravated homicides.
Authorities argue that two recently passed measures — the Family Code and a new penal code — are enough to combat the abuse, but activists want more: They are pushing Parliament and campaigning on social media for a comprehensive law that would encourage and protect women who file complaints.
“Gender-based violence is structural and systematic, and therefore, the response needs to be have the same scope, not just be stuck in family or penal law,” social media platform YoSiTeCreo ("I Do Believe You") said in an emailed response to questions from the AP. The platform emerged shortly after internet service on cellphones expanded in Cuba in 2018.
Between 1960 and 1990, the island advanced to the forefront of women’s rights: Women could get divorced when it was still restricted in surrounding Latin American and Caribbean countries across the region; they shared parental rights of their children; and they were included in higher education and the labor market following the 1959 revolution. They were also given pay equal to men and were granted a full year of maternity leave. In 1961, abortions were made legal and provided for free.
But violence against women stayed hidden, even as women’s movements in countries across the region advanced measures to fight and punish it.
Today, statistics on violence against women in Cuba are scarce and outdated. The government still cites data from it’s 2016 National Gender Survey, released in 2019. It shows that 26.6% of the island's 5 million women were victims of some kind of abuse by their partners, while only 3.7% sought help.
Meanwhile, the death of women at the hands of their partners reached nearly 1 in every 100,000 women at the time, about 50 deaths per year.
YoSiTeCreo says it counted 32 femicides in 2020, 35 last year and 32 so far this year, including two “vicarious” homicides: attacks against others — usually children — carried out to hurt the woman.
In the first years of the revolution, domestic abuse was a taboo subject for many Cuban leaders. They considered it counterproductive to the image of the new society they were trying to build that was focused on social justice.
But in recent years it’s grown more visible. The government and the officially recognized organization Women’s Federation of Cuba have taken steps to combat violence against women, creating more than 150 care centers with specialized counseling, legal services for victims and a hotline. In March 2021, the National Program for the Advancement of Women was launched, a sort of official roadmap to empower and promote women’s leadership.
But Diana and other women who spoke with the AP expressed their doubts about the scope of these initiatives. Some said there’s still no public policy to effectively care for victims.
“The distrust that women have in Cuba is related to the police’s own actions," said activist and entrepreneur Deyni Terry. "When they file a complaint, they don’t get the protection they need. Many are revictimized.”
Sometimes, uniformed officers either refuse to report the violence or call the abuser to confront or testify against the woman, she said.
Officers often say they don’t believe the women, and when women are finally able to make an official report, they have no other choice than to return with their children to the home where the abuser still lives.
Diana is one of those who never filed a report.
Asked why she didn’t ask for a restraining order against her ex-partner, she replied, nearly in tears, “And that works here? I thought about that solution. But where does the person (the victim) end up … when she has nowhere to live?"
For activists, the solution is a comprehensive law that takes into consideration prevention, punishment and the real care of victims. In November 2019, dozens of women asked the Cuban Parliament to form a commission that would receive citizen proposals and draft such a measure. The parliament rejected the request.
In September, the country ratified its new family code and, in December, the new penal code will take effect. Both focus more intently on violence against women than their predecessors did.
Under the Family Code, people with a violent history will have limited communication with their children, cannot be guardians or adopt, and may lose property in case of divorce or widowhood, among other sanctions.
Meanwhile, the penal code establishes that any crime that has gender violence as an aggravating factor will receive heightened sentences.
“It’s not enough to say that we dislike violence, that we repudiate violence ... if, afterward, there’s no effective consequence," said Ana María Álvarez-Tabío, a lawyer and professor at the University of Havana Law School. "That was what (in the old code) did not happen.”
Álvarez-Tabío said the new laws are good measures to have in place to combat the problem in the meantime, but she added, “It would be no small thing to have a general law against gender violence."