Empowering women through social protection: UN rights office

United Nations

Social protection offers a safety net for the vulnerable by means of policies and programmes that provide financial aid, healthcare coverage and social insurance.

“It stops social exclusion and encourages social inclusion,” said Mahamane Cisse-Gouro, Head of the Human Rights Council and Treaty Mechanisms Division of human rights office OHCHR.

The long-term gender gap has developed due to social factors such as girls being forced into early marriages and early pregnancy, or the heavy burden of domestic work, resulting inevitably in less access to formal employment and the inability to contribute to national schemes like social security, insurance, or pension plans.

For migrant women, particularly those who are undocumented, the circumstance is even more precarious.

“One of the main obstacles for undocumented migrant women in accessing services or justice, is the fear that they might be detained and deported,” said Michele LeVoy, Director of the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants.

Even those women who manage to get work with benefits, tend to find themselves in the lowest-paid jobs, while their reproductive and care roles compel them to opt-out of the job market, leading to a gender pension gap when they are getting old.

And the COVID pandemic, climate emergencies, emerging conflicts, and increasing inequality, have made the gender gap even worse for social security.

Mr. Cisse-Gouro stressed that to overcome all these issues, women themselves must have a say in decisions that affect them the most.

“That is the most effective way to find solutions and to ensure their right to social protection is fully realized,” he said. “However, men continue to be over-represented in national parliaments and women continue to be under-represented in leadership positions in the private sectors and trade unions.”

“There is a lack of women’s participation in public and political life in relation to shaping and influencing social protection policies,” he emphasised.

One young activist, 17-year-old Yamikani from Malawi, knows the struggles faced by her community first hand.

Poverty levels in Malawi are alarmingly high, with many families unable to afford three meals a day. According to Yamikani, 60 percent of children in her homeland live in poverty, and families struggle to provide basic needs for their children.

Only 12 percent of children in poverty are covered by social cash transfers in Malawi, and for all children under five, that number falls to just 2.1 percent, Yamikani explained, during a Human Rights Council panel discussion 

“I am particularly concerned that participation of girls and women in social protection decision making processes is not adequate, and it is not taken seriously,” she said 

“By empowering us and valuing our perspectives, we can contribute to the formation of social protection policies and programmes that genuinely address our needs, determine appropriate approaches, prioritize and target children who are in real need.”

Monica Ferro, Director of the Geneva Office of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), echoes Yamikani’s views, stressing gender equality is a prerequisite for women’s participation and leadership.

“We need a global economy that eliminates all barriers and empowers women to choose their future, to own their decisions,” Ms. Ferro said.

“Social Protection schemes play a pivotal role in doing so. In turn, a gender equal society and economy – one where women enjoy equal opportunities and outcomes in the labour market and the public and private sectors – will make social protection systems more inclusive and sustainable.”

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