A difficult, controversial period of continuous changes, is how many experts rightly describe adolescence and youth. However, we must also learn to look at this stage of life as one of opportunities, stated a professor some time ago in regards to the challenges of adolescence.
Placing the focus on adolescents (without loosing sight of the fact that this also implies investing in them), and designing and implementing policies to empower them in their daily lives, both in the private and public sphere, was the key theme of the “Investing in Adolescents: The future begins today” workshop, organized by the United Nations Population Fund (Unfpa) and Center for Youth Studies (CESJ) on July 11.
“Being an adolescent doesn’t mean being vulnerable,” stated Dr. Natividad Guerrero, head of the National Center for Sex Education’s research department, during the event. However, the extent to which the youth can build their own futures, which is their right, will depend on the opportunities we create for them and efforts taken to prevent them from falling into vulnerable situations.
Assertions which, and given the fact that tomorrow’s youth depend on the adolescents of today, paint a positive picture, but also one of shortcomings and challenges and the ever pressing need to invest in those who, rather than building the future of the country today are constructing its present.
However, for María Josefa Luis MSc, deputy scientific director at the CESJ, a multi-dimensional approach must be taken when addressing the needs of this sector of the population.
In Cuba, she noted, “One might not think that policies specifically geared toward this sector of the population exist, given the lack of a Ministry of Youth, but they do, and are contained within the country’s universal policies, which are not only specific to adolescents and the youth,” she noted, speaking to Granma.
In this sense, she commented that the country’s education policy establishes compulsory school attendance through ninth grade for all minors, regardless of gender. Meanwhile the Cuban state undertakes continual efforts to offer infinite health and educational opportunities to help young girls and adolescents in Cuba achieve greater social independence, and life goals such as becoming professionals and skilled workers.
In regards to the workplace, she noted that legislation such as the Labor Code includes sections directed toward protecting youth, saying, “Nineteen is the average age of joining the workforce, and it is expected that to begin qualified employment and receive compensation, only ability, skill, and productive results are required, regardless of age or sex."
Adolescents and youth are also prioritized within public health system strategies, for example from infancy they are provided with a vaccination program which protects them from various illnesses, as well as free, universal healthcare.
Another example of such benefits is primary pre and post-natal care available to all pregnant women, regardless of where in the country they live. However, the policy also includes special attention for women living in rural or remote areas, guaranteeing maternal health services for this sector of the population and helping to attain low maternal mortality rates, as well as ensuring that adolescent mothers are closely monitored and supported throughout pregnancy, birth and the post-partum period.
ADOLESCENTS IN THE EYE OF THE STORM
A country’s largest and best resource is its people, which is why an inclusive society is vital to the development of any social project. However, adolescents and youth are of particular importance to this process, and knowing where they are headed, what they think, need, and want, is the first step…
Today in Cuba, this sector of the population is facing multiple urgent needs and challenges.
During the panel discussion, the CESJ representatives noted that taking a gendered approach to political strategies directed toward youth and the entire population continues to be vital to the process of popular education, which aims to transform the chauvinistic foundations of our civil society, which are even upheld by women of all ages.
Panelists also highlighted concerns about the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy - more frequently expressed by females than males, due to their social context, rather than sex.
Meanwhile, both culture and family attitudes affect the fact that few men or families take advantage of the “paternity law” after the birth of children, which provides families with mechanisms to aid the mother’s swift reincorporation into the workforce or school.
Decree-Law 234 for Working Mothers (2003), with complementary resolution 22/2003, grants Cuban fathers equal paternity leave rights for the first year of the child’s life. Although the law is an achievement, this right is still met with prejudice, stereotypes, and resistance from Cuban society.
The panelists also noted that a lack of older adult care services see women taking on these roles, which results in them giving up their life ambitions, such as studying or working.
Speaking to Granma International, researcher at the University of Havana’s Demographic Studies Center (Cedem), Grisell Rodríguez, stated that the situation is part of the problem of “a vicious cycle, where chauvinistic behavior and patterns are continually reproduced and maintained, and sees women overburdened with roles.”
It is true that many young, capable women give up the opportunity to assume leadership positions within the state and government sector, despite policies to support this, in order to take care of responsibilities at home.
According to experts, there also continues to be a shortage of childcare services, unable to meet high demand, which also sees many young women faced with the dilemma of giving up their studies or work to care for their children.
In regards to sexual and reproductive health, teenage pregnancy in Cuba is a key issue which must be addressed by the various sectors involved.
Although some regional statistics are far higher than the national average for pregnancy, Cuba’s teen pregnancy rate – which according to data from the Ministry of Public Health’s Medical Registry and Statistics Office, is currently 51.8 per 1,000 women between 15 and 19 years old – shows that gaps exist.
When an adolescent becomes pregnant or has a child, her health, education, earning potential, and entire future can be at risk, and she can remain trapped in a life immersed in poverty, exclusion and powerlessness,” stated Raida Semanat MSc, researcher at the CESJ’s Family and Sexuality department.
Thus it is important that families understand adolescents have a right to information on contraception, as it is also part of their right to health, she noted. Semanat stressed that overcoming these disparities means guaranteeing young people, in particular women, independence and equal opportunities in Cuban society.
FAMILY AND SCHOOL… A ROAD TO TRAVEL
This investment in adolescents and youth must be carried out in conjunction with the family, in order to strengthen its role regarding this demographic group, stated María Josefa Luis.
According to Keyla Estévez García DSc, head of the CESJ’s socio-political department, “There are two institutions in society – the Cuban family and school – which are responsible for educating; however they must work together to provide better preparation for all young people, and that’s exactly what we are demanding today.”
Both institutions, she noted, know that they have a great debt in this regard.
“Today a phenomenon is occurring in Cuban society in which adolescents and young people blindly accept and comply with what the family dictates. Our most recent survey of adolescents revealed that it is the family that decides for young people, for example, in regards to their professional future and relationship with their peers…”
“According to Vigotsky and other experts who have studied these issues, the most important activity for adolescents is spending time with their peers, getting along with their social group which regulates, defines and imposes demands on the individual," she stated.
However, in regards to the current situation in Cuba, Estévez García noted, “Groups aren’t being formed on the basis of affiliation (by school or organizations such as the FEEM – The Federation of High School Students) but on similarities, which means that within Cuban schools there exist sub-divisions by class.”
In this context, she said, “Where the family is making the decisions and it’s clear that all matters should be decided in both of the aforementioned institutions, we must try to ensure that investments are made within both. It is neither the responsibility of the media, or a specific organization, but that of society to start to realize that it must come together to educate youth. This means criticism.”
However, we must bear in mind that we are talking about a society weighed down by over 20 years of a difficult economic situation, where the Cuban family has become accustomed to “solving problems” often in neither a conventional or an educative way, while the school has gone through this difficult period with a loss of teachers, and out-of-date study plans…and a group of subjects which are being ineffectively taught in both institutions.”
Estévez García also noted the need for greater consideration when modifying study plans, while also giving teaching staff more freedom to draw up curriculum better suited to students’ needs and modify content in accordance with the conditions of the school, as well as incorporate important social issues.
“Today the Ministry of Education is perfecting policy guidelines allowing teaching staff to modify the school curriculum in accordance with the specific conditions of the institution and its students. But, have we prepared people for this, how can we tell a municipal methodologist or staff member at any level what questions they must ask, how to go about it, and how to adapt to internal particularities? A period of adaptation is needed, during which people must come to realize that they can propose ideas, and that this depends on formulating and changing a series of things,” she stated.
Meanwhile, the CESJ representative also highlighted the urgent need to ensure that the cognitive goes hand in hand with the formative. “Today, we have the subject of civics which is an attempt to somewhat cover deficits, this however, is insufficient. How do we develop civic awareness? Every day. It is perfectly possible for a biology teacher, at the same time as teaching students about cells, to also let them know that they must take care of the environment, and look at life as a whole. This is what the Cuban school needs today.”
In this sense, she stated that we must try to ensure that changes and transformations are thought of in terms of that child, adolescent or young person, not as an adult, but rather as a young boy or girl born into a family who have borne the brunt of years of the special period, who plays with a cell phone next to their crib… And education must change in accordance with this context.
According to the CESJ researcher, the school is also responsible for educating the family, noting that non-institutional learning programs are good spaces in which to educate and train family members on various issues, but that their potential can be further exploited.
A CUSTOM-BUILT FUTURE
In this regard, Estévez García noted the importance of promoting comprehensive policies, initiatives which allow young people to develop independently, offering them broader opportunities to gain greater autonomy, self-sufficiency, to participate and build their own life in their own way. “We must be less hierarchical and paternalistic. Participating means being able, willing and knowing how to do it.”
In this context, and looking to maintain the various gains and indicators achieved to date, it is vital to create participatory spaces and strengthen existing ones, while “enhancing national identity in our youth, a topic under constant renovation,” is also an pressing need in efforts to try and ensure that younger generations “appropriate the best of our culture, make it their own, strengthen, and renew it,” stated Cedem director Antonio Aja Díaz.
“If in the future we wish to have participative, revolutionary citizens, willing, able and happy, to put in the work now, make the efforts on which citizens of other times will depend,” noted expert, María Josefa Luis.
In this regard, she noted that in studies conducted by the CEJC, young people – despite recognizing that many exist – spoke about the need for communicative spaces, and for their opinions to be taken into account. “The spaces exist but aren’t always utilized. In order to participate you have to know how to do so and herein lies the problem,” noted the expert.
According to Aja Díaz in order to do so “our young people must engage with and recognize Cuban society as that of their future and not just their present,” adding that “the key lies in how we ensure that they construct their own reality and participate in building the kind of future they want, which includes giving them the space to make decisions regarding this process.”
Aja also noted that given the current social context, it is important not to loose sight of the fact that youth face vulnerabilities, ones which we can not afford to neglect, as they form part of global realities, to which we are also exposed. In this sense he noted issues such as drug addition, prostitution, alcoholism, in which the family and the media play a decisive role.
NEW CHANGES UNDERWAY
With new scenarios emerging in the socio-economic sphere of the country, so too are various concerns regarding Cuban youth.
According to researcher María Josefa Luis, in regards to work, while the importance of the state in guaranteeing employment has been noted, with the majority of young people still working in this sector, there is also a growing tendency toward the private sector. “Today the desire exists to work in both the state sector, which offers job security, and in the private, to satisfy needs which a state salary is unable to meet.”
However, these new forms of management also entail challenges for young people; such as the now customary practice of establishing verbal rather than written contacts. This is alarming, as the youth see retirement as a remote process and don’t even think about it, she noted.
“Between 29 and 31% of self-employed workers are young people and of them around 46% are contracted staff,” she stated.
Luis added that studies reveal that there is a higher number of male business owners, as compared to female, while the number of female contracted staff is proportionally greater than the number of female business owners. In this regard, the researcher also noted that young women face additional limitations and demands ranging from age requirements, skin color, or the decision to become mothers or not, among others.
The expert also highlighted the issue of the working hours, a matter which, according to Luis, puts strain of the current employment situation, given that although working hours are regulated by the Labor Code, it is a challenge to ensure that they are enforced in the private sector. “Employees can complain when they work over eight hours, but they don’t, they don’t complain to the owner…when they decide that the job no longer suits them, they leave and find another.”
The social side of work is also an issue in need of urgent attention. According to our research, jobs which offer the possibility of professional development have always been important to Cuban youth, a trend which has declined given the increasing focus on economic needs: “I prefer the job that allows me to earn more. If we stop nurturing the value of work as a social action, we will be letting opportunities go,” she noted.
“Economic considerations must not make our youth lose this perspective, that they want to make a contribution to society. This is not impossible," she said, but this implies that the state sector is called upon to be more attractive, given the possibility of work in the private sector - fully recognized by the state as an option.
A HARMONIOUS SOCIETY
Regarding Cuba’s current demographic situation, in which 19% of the population is 60 years of age or older, Aja Díaz highlighted the need to develop actions to promote inter-generational exchanges.
“It’s an irreversible process, which is why it is important to improve the age structure of the population, improve it within the family, enable young women to establish themselves and have the children they desire, but above all this relationship must be nurtured among all, from young people to older adults, in order for them to learn how to live together,” she noted.
Cuban society urgently needs to change the relationship which exists between its generations and develop a greater mutual respect, according to Dr. Aja who highlighted the importance of “less verbal aggression and noise, greater respect toward individuals, older adults and women. Greater understanding between young people, as they will be the older adults of the future; which we don’t have to wait for economic development to achieve,” he noted.
“You shouldn’t have to wait for young people to offer their seats to children or older adults, be they male or female. They shouldn’t have to wait for a signal from the family, media, or educational institution, to do this,” he stated
Meanwhile, Grisell Rodríguez noted, “Although we are rightly concerned by our ageing population, we must continue thinking about the youth, as the economic responsibility of sustaining this aged population will fall on them, as well as living together and their contribution to society.”
All of these are challenges which reaffirm what is already common knowledge, that although continual economic development is necessary in order to overcome the shortcomings faced by Cuban youth today, it is also important to recognize that some of these issues are exclusively related to social consciousness.
However, this also demonstrates the need to ensure that policies or laws implemented by the country to promote and coordinate such development, are effective and generate visible short and long term results. An acute example as highlighted by Antonio Aja is the issue of migration, “We need to achieve a cyclical flow of people, based on the assumption that citizens come back to live in Cuba, although they might leave again, that Cuban women want to have children here and that families also want to be here, because we need these people. In the past we could afford the luxury of people emigrating, but today we need them, above all the youth, to be able to build this future but also as a demographic matter.”
Migration is an option which specifically impacts youth – noted Antonio Aja – given that most migrants are young people. Various issues exist which directly affect young people and thus encourage them to migrate in larger numbers than other sectors of the population.
"It's going to take more than a thorough reading of figures for decisions that have been made to have a greater impact,” stated Arie Hoekman, United Nations Population Fund (Unfpa) representative in Mexico and director for Cuba and the Dominican Republic, speaking to Granma on his most recent visit to Cuba.
“It would be an error to make decisions based solely on youth data categories, such as total population, age, level of schooling, among other figures, because we must also consider the ideas of young people themselves, the problems they face and their opinions on how we could improve a society, in which they are also actors.”
And therein lies the greatest challenge.