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Male Enrollment Figures Challenge Gender Equity in Cuba
By Patricia Grogg
Inter Press Service

     HAVANA, Mar 24 (IPS) - The educational challenge in Cuba is no longer increasing enrollment of females, who outnumber and outperform males in school, but ensuring gender equity.
   Thanks to a government policy that has worked in favour of girls and women, they dominate the student bodies at universities in Cuba. By 1996, women accounted for 60 percent of university students, according to official statistics.
   ''In pre-university education, girls are much more disciplined and better organised than boys, who they outperform, and they have an easier time making it into university,'' said high school computer science teacher Daniel Bittencourt.
   The first nine years of school education are compulsory in Cuba. Students who are interested and qualified go on to prep school and university.
   A scrutiny of grades over three years for 166 students at the institute where Bittencourt teaches showed that 29 girls figured in the top 50 -- with the greatest chance of qualifying for university. Sixteen girls figured among the top 30 students.
   Other teachers said that universities in the 1980s had adopted measures to guarantee gender equity in medical schools because there were more numbers of women doctors than male doctors graduating.
   Nevertheless, in the 1995-96 school year, women accounted for 71 percent of the students registered in medical sciences, while a large number of the doctors currently working in Central America and Africa are women.
   In Bittencourt's view, these data are the natural result of a policy of universal and free education for all Cubans, which began by reducing illiteracy in the country to 3.8 percent in just one year (1961), in the wake of the 1959 revolution.
   Fifty-five percent of those who learned how to read and write in that first year were women, who were able to begin bringing about changes in a patriarchal society according to which marriage and motherhood were their natural roles in life.
   In the 1960s, new schools trained some 150,000 rural women to become promoters of social change in their communities.
   ''A number of studies have found that the educational level of mothers' acts as a variable directly associated with the educational levels of their children, which indicates the importance of special attention being granted to the education of women,'' states an official report.
   Milene Burgos, who began working as a lawyer two years ago, feels it ''very necessary'' to start focusing on keeping boys in school, because ''Cuba is still a sexist society,'' and there are still many families who see education for their sons as a means of ''bringing in the bread'' rather than to excel in their chosen professional field.
   ''Among my group of friends, which included boys and girls from different schools, all the girls continued on to graduate from the university. But only one of the boys did, while the rest got jobs. It seems to me that the boys were not interested in studying,'' said Burgos.
   Burgos finished prep school in 1993, one of the worst years of Cuba's decade-long economic crisis, before going on to study law at the University of Havana, where women are a majority in the classrooms but not in leadership positions on student bodies.
   Yet at primary and secondary school, most student leaders are girls, which in the view of the Ministry of Education ''contributes to developing important skills in communication, participation and negotiation for their personal and social lives.''
   A report drafted by the Ministry for the Apr 26-28 World Education Forum in Dakar states that boys should have equal access to student leadership roles, precisely due to its importance in developing potential and in personal realisation.
   The document stresses the need to give both girls and boys a gender perspective, with the aim of achieving the greatest possible equity, while recognising that boys have some problems that must be addressed.
   At the Dakar conference, organised under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), delegates from 180 countries will assess the progress made in the 10 years that have passed since the 1990 World Conference on Education For All held in Jomtien, Thailand.
   According to the Ministry of Education, in the nineties, more young women have been incorporated into agricultural specialties in vocational and technical education, in which women now account for 43 percent of the student body at the national level.
     Some 4,000 women are now registered in vocation-technical schools to become skilled workers.
    An estimated 8,300 women are also enrolled in adult education classes, and trying to finish primary school (up to grade six), while 9,000 are working on graduating from middle school (grade nine). As many as 10,000 of these women are homemakers.
    This and other results of a critical assessment by Cuba of its achievements and strategies for the future were reviewed at a meeting in the Dominican Republic, Feb 10-12.
  This article is free of copyright restrictions and can be reproduced provided that Inter Press Service is credited.
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