A brief overview of gender gaps in social protection, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure

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A brief overview of gender gaps in social protection, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure


The United Nations Commission of Status of Women (CSW) has declared the theme for its 63rd meeting in March 2019 as “Social Protection, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure and empowerment of women and girls.’’ Social Protection being the human right stipulated under Article 22 in Universal Declaration of Human Rights , is one of the global priorities relating directly to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, Goal 1- Poverty Reduction. The inclusion of gender sensitivity and equality in Social Protection agenda further covers wider goals- Gender equality (SDG 5), health and well being (SDG 3), reduction of inequalities (SDG 10), and decent work and inclusive growth (SDG 8). Although the three issues raised by CSW are rarely discussed together, it was highlighted during the CSW Expert meeting organized in 13-15 September, 2018 in New York that the issues are strongly interrelated and working on them together leads to better achievement of the goals.1

Social protection, often seen as synonym to social security, refers mostly to the systems designed to reduce vulnerability and poverty through coverage of social assistance through cash transfers to populations in need, benefits and support for working groups in case of maternity, disability, work injury or for those without jobs; and pension coverage for the elderly.2 However, recent arguments and discussions imply social protection being an extension of social security. It promotes inclusion of micro-level policy to macro level developmental considerations like reforestation for prevention of natural disasters and health campaigns to address all levels of constraints faced by people of developing countries.3 While the progress on social protection have grown to this height, there is still the struggle to incorporate gender lens in the policies formations and agenda evaluation.

Different policies frameworks are in place guiding the gender equality in social protection action, further interlinking them with access to services and sustainable infrastructures. The sets of rights specified by International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted by General Assembly in 1966- the right to social security (article 9), the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing (article 11), the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (article 12) and the right to education (article 13)- mandates states to respect, protect and fulfill without any discrimination on the basis of sex. Similarly, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) states the importance of availability, accessibility, affordability and quality of related services as well as on the adequacy of social protection benefits, such as pensions, family allowances or unemployment benefits for fully enjoying economic and social rights. Various UN legal instruments like Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, 1979), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families (1990), and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) have also enshrined the right to social security. Similarly the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995) promotes the social protection agenda more broadly where member states committed to ‘social security systems wherever they do not exist, or review them with a view to placing individual women and men on an equal footing, at every stage of their lives’ under the critical concern A. It also recognized the role of infrastructures under its critical concerns F (women and the economy) and K (women and the environment).4 Similarly, ILO Convention 156 and Recommendation 165 on workers with family responsibilities set out that persons with family responsibilities must be free to exercise their right to employment without being subject to discrimination and that affordable childcare, home-help and home-care services should be promoted.5

Despite having policies in place, strong implementation and implications on gender equality still remains farfetched dream. As widely evidenced, women face various disadvantages due to social protection agendas being focused on male centric labor force, although it varies as per region and labor market. Globally, only 29 per cent of the population is covered by comprehensive social security systems, while only 26.4% of working-age women are covered by contributory old-age protection; in comparison to 31.5% of the total working-age population.Likewise, In North Africa, only 8.0% of women receive an old-age pension, in comparison to 63.6% of elderly men.6 In case of European countries, women’s pensions are on average 40.2% lower than those of men and almost 65% of people above the retirement age living without a regular pension are women.7 With 20.6% of women above the age of 65 are at risk of poverty within European Union, compared to 15.0% of men, women are at ever growing risk of poverty.8

Over-representation of women in informal work settings and unpaid work like household management and child care, while under representation in paid- job market is considered one of the major constraints for women’s equal say on social protection agenda. Although there has been an overall rise in female labor force participation, there are certain constraints specific of biological role for reproduction, along with assigned social roles for child and family care. Studies show that, worldwide, women undertake 75% of all unpaid care work and spend 2.5 times more time on these care tasks than men do.9 Similarly, the normative restrictions imposed by social values and concerns towards certain movement of women leads to facing disadvantages in social protection front. The persistent gender pay gap, strict contribution requirements and stronger links between contribution and benefits further deteriorate women’s access to social protection. Thus it is paramount in this momentum to understand and address the constraints faced by women and enhance gender sensitivity in the design and implementation of the system.

Women’s active role in care giving sector means they are more in need of public services and their easy access. Thus advocacy for quality public service should be aligned to ensuring proper social protection. Affordable child and elderly care services, safe sanitation facilities in the work places allows women to maintain the link with paid employment and enjoy different social protection schemes. Sexual and reproductive health services like abortion care are also of utter importance to prioritize as it directly impacts on women’s work routine and health. Similarly, sustainable infrastructures like safe drinking water, accessible and women-friendly transportations and roads, markets in route to workplaces etc are some ways to complement social protection as they enhance the efficiency of women saving their time for unpaid works. Post Paris agreement and agenda 2030, nations across the world are integrating environment, social and gender responsiveness to their conceptualization, designs and development. However, it still remains a huge challenge in developing countries, especially with complicated geography to rise to this level.

We can take references of some successful public services initiatives that helped in promoting and securing gender equality through United Nations Public Service Award winners, for example, Egyptian government funded “Women’s Health Outreach Programme” which provided 106,000 women with free breast cancer screening, diagnosis and therapeutic services free of charge since 2007. Similarly, Moroccan government’s initiative women leadership development through training and mentorship reached out to 8000 women in the country and Africa resulting in enhanced political participation and victory in local election in certain regions. Germany also started “Prospects for re-entering the workforce” initiative which supported over 17300 women with resources and training for reintegration into the workforce after career break due to maternity or family reasons. Likewise from Pakistan’s increasing rate of women into small-scale industries and running unions to Equador’s national inclusion of Gender unit for budget inclusion, they were all exemplary initiations which can be taken as best practices and should be promoted.10  

Therefore, as we anticipate upcoming CSW convention in 2019, we recommend states and institutions to give strategic thoughts on gender-responsiveness in their social protection schemes at every stage of designing to implementation and evaluation. A robust social protection system can contribute in lowering the gender gap to huge extent. In order to build the system, there needs to be promotion for investment, professionalization and formalization of care economy, crediting care periods into contributory social protection systems, provision of paid parental leaves to men and women to ensure equal responsibilities, support and facilitation during transitional phase to formal work and adoption of policies to close gender pay gap, including pay transparency.11 Also, as CSW presses, the social protection agenda cannot be taken as a stand-alone system, rather be aligned with development of public services and sustainable infrastructure.


  1. UN Women (September 2018). Sixty-third session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 63) ‘Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls’. New York

2. http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/socialprotection/overview

3. Lustig, N. (ed.). 2001. Shielding the Poor: Social Protection in the Developing World, (Washington DC: Inter-American Development Bank).

4. UN Women (2018). Concept note. Expert Group Meeting on ‘Social protection systems, public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality’

5. International Trade Union Confederation (2018). Gender gap in social protection: Policy Brief

6. ILO (2017) World Social Protection Report 2017-2019: Universal social protection to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

ILO (2014) World Social Protection Report 2014/15: Building economic recovery, inclusive development and social justice

7. Istituto per la Ricerca Sociale (IRS)-Italy (2016) The gender pension gap: differences between mothers and women without children

8. Eurostat (2018) http://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/submitViewTableAction.do

9. McKinsey Global Institute (2015) The Power of Parity: How Advancing Women’s Equality can add $12 Trillion to Global Growth, ILO (2016) Non-Standard Employment Around the World: Understanding challenges, shaping prospects,

10.  http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2013/6/ensuring-womens-rights-through-better-public-services

11. International Trade Union Confederation (2018). Gender gap in social protection: Policy Brief


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