Monsters and Critics
‘You can sit down, my love. We will be with you shortly.’
Leticia Santa Cruz greets each woman who enters her hairdresser’s shop in the central Havana neighbourhood of Pilar-Atares with the same commonplace phrase.
However, eyebrows are raised when instead of a gossip or fashion magazine - which are in any case not abundant in Cuba - the customer is handed two leaflets containing information on HIV/AIDS and a pack of condoms.
Salud=Belleza Afrodita, which translates as Health=Beauty Aphrodite is a rare pilot project that seeks to combat AIDS through prevention efforts by women.
And it uses as a resource a place that most women - be they workers, students or housewives - visit on a regular basis with a view to devote time to their personal appearance.
‘The core of the idea here was finding a different way to take prevention to women,’ says Santa Cruz.
She is the founder and director of a project sponsored by Cuba’s National Centre for the Prevention of STDs and HIV, UNAIDS, UNESCO, UNDP and the Global Fund.
‘We have seized a space where women waste their time on silly novellas and mediocre magazines, and we can use this space to inform them on what is happening around a pandemic which is destroying the world,’ Santa Cruz stresses.
Like Santa Cruz, all the hairstylists in the salon are trained for the cause and have worked in AIDS-prevention projects in Cuba.
While they wash, cut or dye women’s hair, they ‘talk to customers, ask questions, clear up doubts,’ she says.
‘The hairdresser and the barber were always people’s confessor monks.’
She said this approach gives the project the chance ‘for women in the community to know what is going on.’
Cuba has some of the lowest HIV/AIDS rates in the region. With a population of over 11 million people, 9,039 have been diagnosed with HIV, and 3,427 of these developed AIDS, according to the latest official data.
The first case was detected on the island in 1986.
One of the main problems encountered by Cubans seeking to combat the pandemic is promiscuity, a ‘habit’ that is widespread on the island, as Cubans of both sexes readily admit.
‘The Cuban man is a man with no taboos as to leading a double life, and we have to be conscious of that,’ Santa Cruz says.
And not just men. Ana Maria, 36, one of Afrodita’s clients, admits that, in her youth, she led a ‘double life’ too.
‘We do not encourage doubts as to the integrity of the home. What we are doing is to prevent,’ Santa Cruz stresses. ‘We have to have our feet firmly on the ground. A woman over 30 may lead a quiet life, taking care of her children, her husband. But her husband is not at home, he is on the street, socializing, coming in contact with other women.
‘We give women this perspective so that they do not live in blindness,’ she says.
Since it opened on February 14, Valentine’s Day, Afrodita has built a group of regulars, with new women joining every day on word of mouth, and also attracted by the cheap service at 3 Cuban pesos (about 0.10 dollar).
Maria is one of the regulars. At her age, the pensioner says with a smile, she is no longer interested in the prevention of AIDS and other STDs for herself. But she claims to have read all the leaflets and says that, when she gets home, she passes on the information to her children and grandchildren.
‘I tell people here in the neighbourhood, everyone. There are talks here, and you find out about many things. Although they also tell you on television, here it is more solid, more practical,’ Luisa agrees, as the stylist Daile puts blond highlights on her hair.
By mid-morning, five women have gathered in the lobby. Besides the leaflets and the condoms, a large TV broadcasts non-stop spots on AIDS prevention.
Arleen, a 33-year-old widow, and Julia, a woman in her 40s who has been married for more than a decade, are making their first visit to Afrodita. When asked by Santa Cruz, both admit that they have never used a condom.
This is precisely the project’s target group.
‘What suggestions can we give this type of woman?’ Santa Cruz asks about the young widow. ‘First, to get her to see what is happening with STDs, because on her way to having a partner she can have several sexual relationships.
‘Starting right now, in your next relationships, we suggest that you use a condom,’ she tells the customer softly.
Santa Cruz stresses that her role is to prevent disease.
‘We are not here to change anybody’s sexual practices. You have whatever sexual relationships you want to have,’ she says.
Afrodita offers a weekly session of cinema and debate, and talks by experts. And Santa Cruz’s aim is to broaden the options and touch on other problems, like abuse, drug addiction or self-esteem issues, which according to her can lead ‘to a risk-prone sex life.’