The human rights-based approach to social protection requires states to ensure that social protection programmes are designed, implemented and monitored taking into account the differences in the experiences of men and women. The impacts of social protection programmes are not gender neutral. As such, States must ensure that programmes address women’s specific needs throughout the different phases of their lives, from childhood to old age. The programmes should factor in women’s care role as well as the differences in access to services and productive work between men and women.
Numerous international and regional legal instruments oblige States parties to ensure that men and women enjoy all their rights on an equal basis. The most important of these instruments is the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which seeks substantive equality and requires states to transform unequal power relations between women and men and ensure that all human beings can develop and make choices without the limitations set by stereotypes, rigid gender roles and prejudices (Article 5). Under CEDAW, States parties are required by law to take all appropriate measures to modify or abolish domestic policies, regulations, customs and practices that discriminate against women (Article 2). With regards to the right to social security specifically, Recommendation No. 202, para 3d) underlines gender-equality as a corner stone to the establishment and maintenance of national social protection systems.
To assess the differences in the experiences of men and women as beneficiaries of social protection programmes, States should undertake a comprehensive and disaggregated gender analysis (Recommendation No. 202, para 21). The eligibility criteria used in social protection programmes should be gender sensitive and should consider not only the household income, but also the intra-household distribution of resources that may disadvantage women, in particular girls and older women. Monitoring and evaluation mechanisms should also incorporate gender-disaggregated indicators to assess and improve programmes’ ability to take women’s voices into account (Recommendation No. 202, para 21).
Many programmes around the world select women as the principal beneficiaries on the assumption that this enhances women’s decision-making power within the household and improves the nutrition, health and education levels of children. However, when this is done without taking due account of differentiated gender impacts, it can in fact negatively impact women’s rights. These concerns are magnified where programmes involving conditionalities make women responsible for fulfilling those conditions, such as sending children to school or bringing children for regular health check-ups. Conditionalities are generally problematic, but especially so when the services such as schools or health clinics needed to fulfil programme requirements are not adequate or accessible. The burden on women is exacerbated when satisfactory support services, such as child-care, transport and sanitation facilities, are not provided. For example, women may have to travel long distances to collect benefits. Programmes that require women to obtain their husband’s consent to seek health care for children, use a mainstream language or deal with male bureaucrats may further discourage women from accessing the programmes. Lack of childcare services adds to the problem as it may discourage women from travelling or compel them to pass childcare responsibilities on to girls in the household, proving detrimental to the girls’ education.
One way in which social protection programmes do not consider the different experiences of women is the frequent failure to value unpaid care work, a task that has been socially constructed as women’s responsibility. Care imposes demands on women’s time that restrict their ability to seek education, health care (including reproductive care), undertake paid work or enjoy any free time. Therefore, social protection programmes need to ensure that measures introduced with the aim of promoting gender equality do not have the unintended consequence of reinforcing gendered divisions of labour. Acknowledging that confronting socially constructed gender roles needs protracted effort, there are nevertheless a number of strategies that governments can adopt to better recognize, reduce and redistribute care, such as gender-sensitive public services and infrastructure, which would help to lessen the burden on women. Programmes should ensure that all impediments to women’s and girls’ ability to access labour markets, engage in capacity-building measures and enjoy leisure are overcome. For this, social protection programmes should take into account the double burden that unpaid care work and the responsibilities imposed by conditionalities place on women. In addition, they must be mindful of the heterogeneity of women’s experiences and consider the intersectionality of gender, race and class, among other identity markers.
Examples of gender-sensitive programme designs include providing childcare facilities in public works programmes or employment guarantee schemes, keeping work hours flexible to accommodate time for domestic responsibilities, and establishing sex quotas in governance structures of social protection programmes to increase women’s participation. A comprehensive, publicly funded social pension scheme for women is another example which would take into consideration the higher life expectancy of women, the variability in labour force participation between genders, the burden of unpaid care work, and the ability of women in different age groups to contribute to the pension scheme. Additionally such a scheme can compensate for women’s lack of access to contributory pension schemes as well as their low income and savings levels during their working lives.
In every stage of the programme, women should be given equal opportunities in decision-making processes, ensuring that their participation is not reduced to the symbolic expression of concerns, especially in male-dominated settings. Further, to meet legal human rights obligations, social protection programmes must include accountability mechanisms that are accessible to both men and women. Such mechanisms must pay attention to gendered power differences which may discourage women from voicing their concerns or lodging complaints.