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Empowering women through social protection: UN rights office

Access to social protection is a fundamental human right, yet a recent UN human rights report shows that numerous women and girls worldwide are still unable to access provisions such as social security payments and pensions. 

Social protection provides a safety net for the vulnerable through policies and programmes that offer financial assistance, healthcare coverage and social insurance.

“It helps prevent social exclusion and promotes social inclusion,” said Mahamane Cisse-Gouro, Director of the Human Rights Council and Treaty Mechanisms Division of human rights office OHCHR.

Long-term gender gap

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

For migrant women, especially those who are undocumented, the situation is even more precarious.

“One of the key barriers 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 are able to get work with benefits, tend to find themselves in the lowest-paid jobs, while their reproductive and care roles force them to opt-out of the job market, resulting in 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.

Women participation needed

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

“That is the most effective way to find solutions and to secure their right to social protection is fully realized,” he said. “Yet, 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.

Chronic poverty

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 creation of social protection policies and programmes that genuinely address our needs, decide right approaches, prioritize and target children who are in real need.”

Economic empowerment

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

“We need a global economy that removes all obstacles 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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