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The Macrademia Botanical Garden in Palmira, in the province of Cienfuegos, Cuba, has 1,300 different plant species and is the one of the largest botanical garden in the country. In this garden, beneath the shade of fruit trees and palms, we meet with a group of 20 women, all leaders. With the sound of roosters crowing and birdsong in the background, we talk about the changes in the role of women in the National Association of Women Farmers (ANAP), which has been made possible, in part, by an Oxfam International project.
"The project has been very favorable for us, because we have seen ourselves embark on a really positive path within ANAP," Ydalmez Gonzalez says. "And for my personal experience, it has been very fruitful. We learned about gender, organizing, communication, computers, and organic agriculture. We learned a lot and it is very satisfying."
Creating jobs and new leaders
Many women in the rural areas of Cuba are looking for work, but there aren't many opportunities. Oxfam is helping to solve this problem by including in its projects the construction of greenhouses and nurseries where women can work. In addition, ANAP has organized workshops on gender in order to lift women's self esteem and create new leaders. Today, in the municipalities of Roda and Palmiras, there are 60 new women leaders.
"This project has been a base for us to continue working on what we have dreamed about for years. Women have the same rights as men, the law says so. But in the real world, from a social point of view, it isn't so," says Alberto Curbelo, president of ANAP in Cienfuegos. "Today, because of this project, 53 percent of the leaders in this province are women. So, when we saw these excellent results, we decided to develop a gender strategy for ANAP nationally. This strategy allows us to identify the problems that limit women's participation in each cooperative and find a way to resolve it. What's more, the project helps women and men identify their own strengths and potential."
For Carmen Padron, president of a credit and services cooperative, ANAP's gender work has been the key to her development. "I started out in ANAP in an administrative position in a livestock cooperative," she says. "Because of this women's leadership project, I began to feel more confident. I started to take on other responsibilities within the same cooperative. I worked a little in sugar cane production, taking on a little more of the role of a director among my workmates. And my workmates, apart from respecting me as a woman, saw me as a leader."
"Later, I went on to manage a 125-member sugar cane cooperative," she says. "It wasn't difficult. I learned a lot in the women's workshops. I felt confident. I learned to direct, to communicate, how to talk to my workmates, how to get them to do things without offending them, without mistreating them, or imposing myself upon them. I used the power of persuasion. But when I went on, a few months ago, to lead an entire cooperative I thought they might reject me. But they didn't; they accepted me. And since I had experience, it wasn't difficult. The farmer today is not the same as before. He accepts the fact that women lead, that they have opinions, and he takes them into consideration. So it wasn't difficult to be a woman leader. But if I hadn't have had all these training sessions, all this instruction, all this knowledge I had acquired, I wouldn't have been able to do it. I would have stayed behind a desk, scribbling numbers. No one would have been able to get me out of there."
It isn't just older women who are discovering these new abilities and possibilities. Only in her twenties, Yamelis Ferron was a speaker at an official ceremony. She spoke to thousands of farmers.
"It was really exciting, because after I spoke people said, 'I didn't know you were capable of that,' and 'I didn't think you had the courage to stand up and speak in front of so many people,'" she says, remembering her experience. "In school I would panic whenever I had to speak to large groups. But when I got involved in this movement of women leaders, little by little I lost that fear. I feel very proud to have started from the rank and file. I am now deputy in the municipality of Roda and I continue to work. They are small steps, but steps you notice."