Inclusion of Vulnerable Groups

As a human right that is intrinsic to all, the international community recognizes the need to design and implement social protection systems according to the principle of social inclusion, underlying the particular need to include persons in the informal economy (Recommendation No. 202, para 3e). Delivery systems should therefore be particularly attuned to the challenges and obstacles faced by vulnerable and disadvantaged groups and take special measures to protect these. Indeed, a human rights-based approach to social protection requires that States give special attention to those persons who belong to the most disadvantaged and marginalized groups in society. This entails guaranteeing non-discriminatory treatment as well as adopting proactive measures to enable those suffering from structural discrimination (for example, ethnic minorities or indigenous peoples) to enjoy their rights. Affirmative action and other proactive measures should aim at diminishing or eliminating conditions that give rise to or perpetuate discrimination, and at countering stigmas and prejudices. The CESCR’s General Comment 20 recommends the use of a range of laws, policies and programmes, including special measures to tackle discrimination. The measures that States adopt should pay attention to the specific human rights problems that emerge with relation to, for example, gender, age, disability, migration and displacement. Of particular relevance in this context are the obligations imposed by the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families.

CEDAW (Articles 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, 16) requires States parties not only to ensure that women enjoy their right to social security on an equal basis to men, but also to undertake appropriate special measures so as to provide women with equal opportunities in public life, education, employment, health care, economic and social life, and marriage and family relations. In order to redress disadvantages associated with gender, both contributory and non-contributory social protection programmes should be made gender-sensitive. This means contributory programmes taking into account the factors that prevent women from making equal contributions, such as intermittent participation in the workforce on account of care responsibilities and unequal wage outcomes. Meanwhile, the CESCR’s General Comment 19 points out that non-contributory programmes should consider that women are more likely to live in poverty than men and often have sole responsibility for the care of children. In any case, States have obligations to take into account the whole range of women’s rights. CEDAW points out that states must take appropriate measures to modify the social patterns that accord differential status to men and women (Article 5) and ensure the equality of women in rural areas (Article 14) as well. (See gender perspective)

From a human rights perspective, social protection programmes should also be child-sensitive in their design, implementation and evaluation. The CRC (the Preamble, Articles 2 and 23 in particular) emphasizes that the best interests of children should be respected at all times, and their special needs should be accommodated. A child-sensitive social protection programme is one which ensures the rights of the child, and takes into account all the factors that might place children in a vulnerable position (see also the joint publication Advancing Child-Sensitive Social Protection). Programmes are required to factor in age- and gender-specific risks and vulnerabilities at each stage of the life course, especially considering the needs of families with children. Special provisions should be made for children without parental care and those who are marginalized within their families due to gender, disability, ethnicity, HIV/AIDS status or other markers of identity. To achieve these ends, it is necessary that intra-household dynamics be carefully considered, including the balance of power between men and women. A child-sensitive programme must also include the voices and opinions of children and youth, and their caregivers in design and implementation processes.

Persons with disabilities face various impediments to the enjoyment of their human rights, and thus social protection programmes must employ the utmost sensitivity with regard to their needs. Programmes must ensure their effective coverage and access to social protection benefits, support services as well as to information related to assistive technology and other facilities. This requirement is laid down in the CRPD (Article 4). Article 3 states that social protection programmes must incorporate the chief principles of the CRPD:

  • respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of persons;
  • non-discrimination;
  • full and effective participation and inclusion in society;
  • respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity;
  • equality of opportunity;
  • accessibility; and
  • equality between men and women.

The CRPD also stresses that the special needs of women and children with disabilities must be duly taken into account (Articles 3, 6 and 7).

Various other characteristics, such as ethnicity, health status, sexual orientation or geographical location can also impede the equal enjoyment by some people of their economic, social and cultural rights, including their right to social security. Each of these characteristics must be taken into account when a social protection programme is designed and implemented. Inclusion of those who are disadvantaged and marginalized is the first step but it is not enough. The provision of quality social services needed by different groups is equally important. For example, building maternal health clinics in rural areas does not necessarily meet the state’s obligations if the services provided in those clinics are worse than in clinics elsewhere in the country or if they do not meet standards set in similar contexts.

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