This year, the 63rd session of the Commission for the Status of Women takes as its theme social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality, and the empowerment of women and girls. As a resource for women’s rights advocates and organizations, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership has put together a collection of materials on these issues, including UN and NGO reports, relevant international standards, and best practices.
Social protection systems refer to policies and programmes designed to reduce and prevent poverty, vulnerability, and social exclusion. Such programmes include child and family benefits, maternity protection, unemployment support, disability benefits, illness benefits, and old age benefits, as well as access to affordable medical care. For these systems to be effective, they must work in tandem with public services, infrastructure, and labor market policies that aim to reduce inequality.
From a human rights perspective, social protection systems, sustainable infrastructure, and public services are all grounded firmly in women’s social and economic rights. The realization of these rights, which include the right to work, the right to social security, health, education, and sanitation, among others, depends on the availability, accessibility, affordability, and quality of infrastructure through which crucial services are delivered as well as the universality of coverage of social protection systems.
Importantly, these systems and services must be designed, planned, and executed in a gender-sensitive and gender-responsive manner in order to serve those most in need. Gender-blind policies and programs that do not take the particularities of women’s needs into account from the start fall short of making sure that women have equal access to vital services and public entitlements. For example, many social protection schemes have been designed around a model that assumes a male head of household breadwinner with an uninterrupted and full-time career in the formal economy, an approach which disadvantages and penalizes women.
This means that social protection systems and existing infrastructures often need to be re-envisioned and transformed from the bottom up to prevent discrimination and counterbalance the deleterious effects of prevailing neoliberal economic policies that further disenfranchise those most vulnerable. As the UN Secretary General has noted, “universal social protection geared towards ensuring an adequate standard of living for all can be achieved only if gender-specific and age-specific risks and vulnerabilities are taken into account.”
While there has been significant progress in terms of access to social protection, public services, and sustainable infrastructure, this progress is threatened by continued budgetary cuts and austerity measures. These rollbacks affect women and girls disproportionately, particularly those who experience intersecting forms of discrimination.
Despite the progress over the past two decades, there continue to be major gender-related gaps in social protection systems. Women continue to be overrepresented among those who are excluded from social protection, and when they are covered, their benefits tend to be lower than men’s (SG report). In addition, entitlements that are bound to formal employment disproportionately affect women since they tend to be overrepresented in the informal sector.
In a similar vein, while access to public services has greatly increased over the past two decades, there still remains much to be done. Apart from reducing the prohibitive costs of some of these services, attention needs to be paid to non-financial barriers to access. Things like physical distance to service locations (especially in rural areas) and legal and institutional barriers make it more difficult for women and girls to access essential services they need. In some contexts for example, women need to show proof of marriage in order to access reproductive health care. The most well intentioned policies are rendered completely ineffective if policymakers continue to ignore the institutional and legal discrimination that exists against women.
The ILO has developed a number of international standards are relevant to the gendered aspects of social protection. As the first international social protection standard of the twenty-first century, the ILO’s Social Protection Floors Recommendation, 2012 (No. 202) calls for Implementing rights-based social protection – including access to healthcare and income security – and anchoring those rights in law. In addition, the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice has echoed the Bachelet Report’s focus on the importance of social protection in mitigating the effects of economic crises, which tend to disproportionately affect women. In 2017, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights made the case for a universal basic income to supplement or even replace existing social protection systems. He argued that from a human rights perspective, a basic income approach to social protection is best placed to challenge the global economic insecurity that represents a fundamental threat to all human rights, particularly those of women.