By PETER ORSI
HAVANA (AP) â¿¿ Cuba has made great strides in gender equality, but still has work to do in eradicating macho attitudes and supporting opportunities for women in business and leadership, according to a new report from a U.S. study group published to coincide with International Women's Day on Friday.
The Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas also warned that the island's economic difficulties and drive to restructure its socialist model could put at risk the advances in gender equality since the Cuban Revolution.
"Just like everywhere, in times of economic crisis it's women and families and kids that are often the most vulnerable," Sarah Stephens, the group's executive director, said Thursday.
During numerous research trips to the island and interviews with a wide range of Cuban women, Stephens said, that was "one of the concerns that we heard again and again."
President Raul Castro's economic reform plan includes massive reductions in state jobs, with those workers to be absorbed by an expanded private sector that has grown to 181 approved trades.
But the center report noted that many of those are male-dominated professions â¿¿ mechanics, masons, construction workers and so on â¿¿ and to date, 24 percent of small businesses are run by women.
Moreover there's no provision for women in the private sector to maintain rights they enjoy in government jobs, such as paid maternity leave and breaks for breast-feeding.
The center recommended that Cuba implement measures to support women as independent workers and small business owners, such as offering training in finance and marketing, improving access to credit and providing day care.
"What we heard from women was that much of the safety net, many of the benefits they received working for the state, they still desperately need in order to make ends meet, in order to be able to both hold down a job and take care of the home and the family and put meals on the table," Stephens said.