A father from the start: Promoting early childhood development in Cuba


A father from the start: Promoting early childhood development in Cuba


© UNICEF Cuba/2017

Eduardo sits with his teenage son, Adrian. Adrian was diagnosed with deafness shortly after his first birthday, and both of his parents have been committed to making sure he has the best opportunities at home and in school.

by Marta López Fesser

HAVANA, Cuba/ HONG KONG, 2 August 2017 – When Eduardo and his wife Margalys decided that they wanted to have children, he wasn’t sure what it would be like to be a father, but he was committed to being a good one. They attended family planning services together, and eventually prenatal sessions when they became pregnant.

Eduardo was at the hospital when little Adrian finally arrived, but he was not able to share that moment with Margalys in the delivery room. The hospital didn’t offer the possibility, he says, but he would have liked to have been there. Although the presence of men in the delivery rooms during childbirth is legally institutionalized in Cuba, many hospital regulations do not allow it, and there is widespread ignorance among men and women about this right.

Eduardo also didn’t have parental leave. In 2003, Cuban law expanded the social benefit so that after the mother’s 12 weeks of postnatal leave, the father and the mother could decide who would care for the baby until the first year of life. However, in practice, hardly any couple shares the leave. Eduardo believes he did not have enough information about parental leave and specific disability leave.

Despite these ingrained social norms, Eduardo shared all of the new parental responsibilities with his wife. From changing diapers and washing clothes, to playing with the baby or rocking him to sleep. “We have to work as a team and share the tasks; if not, it doesn’t work,” he says.

Early moments matter

In their early years of life, children’s brains form up to 1,000 neural connections every second – connections that are the bricks for building their future. Those connections need good nutrition, protection and love. A father’s participation before, during and after birth increases his commitment and responsibility in the long run, which has a positive impact on the child. Greater participation in child rearing from the father not only helps with early childhood development, but also breaks the cycle of violence perpetuated by beliefs and attitudes around the masculinity.

Cuba has a strong commitment to equality between women and men in all professional and social spheres, as is written in its constitution, laws and policies. The country is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (1979), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) or the Beijing Declaration (1995), and openly recognizes equality between men and women, including co-responsibility in the care and upbringing of children. However, cultural patterns and structures perpetuate inequalities in the enjoyment of rights and in the spaces for parental involvement.


©UNICEF Cuba/2017

Eduardo looks on as his son Javier, 5, plays. From the very beginning, Eduardo has modelled an equal, respectful relationship for his sons by sharing parental responsibilities and housework with his wife.


Through the early childhood education programme Educa a tu Hijo (Educate Your Child), which engages 71 per cent of children under the age of 6, UNICEF promotes the participation of parents in the education of their sons and daughters. UNICEF is currently developing informative and teaching materials aimed at making parents more aware at each stage of parenthood: their rights, the services available and the direct impact of active and responsible parenting on the development of their children.

Overcoming new obstacles

While popping balloons in the celebration of Adrian’s first year, they realized that Adrian did not react; he seemed not to hear. He was soon diagnosed with deafness, and began attending a special circle for children with hearing impairments until he received a cochlear implant at the age of 5.

“When we got the news of his deafness, I had to get strong,” says Margalys. “Eduardo collapsed and I had to tell him: this is our son and he only has us, he is watching us. We have to give each other strength.” Since then, Margalys and Eduardo have continued to share the tasks of care, parenting, education and housework that belong to motherhood and paternity, with the added effort that required caring for Adrian.

At the age of 10, Adrian transitioned to a mainstream school, but remained reserved and introverted. He yearned for a little brother. Two years later, Javier arrived. He, too, was diagnosed with deafness at just 4 months old.

“It was very hard again: you have stories and toys prepared with such enthusiasm, and again you know that it will take time until you can introduce them,” says Eduardo. “We know couples who have separated because the situation overcomes them. The hardest part is not being able to give your child what he needs because you do not understand him.”

The role of teachers and methodologists is key for children with disabilities, since they are the ones who help to integrate children into the educational and social spheres. UNICEF supports the training of teachers in mainstream schools in Cuba so that they have the necessary technical and pedagogical tools to meet the special educational needs of children and adolescents with disabilities.

Today, thanks to the attention, love and opportunities that Eduardo and Margalys have given to their children, Adrian is a brilliant teenager fascinated by mathematics and computing who dreams of becoming a computer engineer. Javier, at age 5, is a curious, confident child, who has managed to enliven his older brother. Eduardo shares a special moment with Javier every day, when they walk their dog Linda together. With Adrian, he strives to help him with his math and physics assignments, although he confesses that they are increasingly difficult for him to understand.

Adrian and Javier also help out at home on tasks such as cleaning, cooking, washing dishes or laundry – tasks that they have seen their father do since they can remember. When both parents engage equally in respectful, non-violent relationships, children internalize the idea that men and women are equal, and pass it on to future generations.

In addition to everything they have learned related to parenthood, Eduardo and Margalys have succeeded in overcoming any obstacles to the full development of their children. Although at the beginning everything was new and they felt different, with time they learned together that they were just another family in a diverse society.