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6 Feb, 2009 07:15

Cuba’s battle of the sexes goes on

Cuba is a world leader in the battle for gender equality. The number of women in positions of power is among the highest in the world. But campaigners say the battle is far from over.

Recma Cot Aguilera provides a good example. She is the first and only woman Episcopal bishop in Cuba, and one of only a dozen in the world. What is even more remarkable is that her appointment was backed by her congregation and the Communist Party.

“Women feel free to express their problems to another woman. My parishioners come to me with problems like family issues, often stories of domestic violence; they need empowerment and guidance from another woman, and that's why they come to me,” Aguilera said.

Cuba is not immune to the domestic violence and abuse that plagues all of Latin America, but when it comes to equal opportunity Cuba has come a long way to ensure women are given a chance.

Natalia, a Ukrainian national for 35 years, says the island grew on her.

“When I left Ukraine they used to scare me by telling me awful things about Cuba, but I've learnt to love it: the people, the weather, and the system, I've never lived in any other system but the communist one,” Natalia said.

Women's rights were taken very seriously in post-revolutionary Cuba. President Raul Castro's late wife, Vilma Espin, championed the cause. Their daughter Mariela Castro, director of the National Center of Sexuality, continues the battle.

She's broadened the front to include equal rights for gays and transsexuals.

“There are still the remains of machismo Cuba, but our goal is to change popular perception and teach tolerance. Straight, gay or transsexual, equal rights is what the Cuban version of socialism is all about,” Mariela Castro says.

Despite successes on equality, there is an imbalance in other fields of human rights. Those in the Ladies in White pressure-group say the country's record is far from spotless. Their husbands are in jail, prisoners of conscience say their wives, but U.S. agents or mercenaries according to the Cuban government.

The wives of 75 prisoners have protested against their husbands’ imprisonment in the past. But each demonstration was suppressed, often brutally.

However, they were allowed to march freely on the recent World Human Rights day for the first time ever.

Lady in White member Laura Pollan, wife of a political prisoner says she hopes “all Cubans will be able to celebrate this day without political prisoners, where peace and love and freedom will reign,” she said.

These women insist they are not just pushing for their husband's release. They say they're the last fighters in the final remaining battle for equality in Cuba.