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Universal social protection for gender equality


Progress towards achieving SDG 5, gender equality and empowerment for all women and girls remains slow and far from being a reality. In no country have women achieved economic equality with men, and it will take another 131 years to reach gender parity. If current trends continue, more than 342 million women and girls could be living in extreme poverty by 2030.  

Despite the link between human rights, non-discrimination and universal social security, women across the globe are systematically disadvantaged in their use and access to social protection. Compounded by unequal access to sexual and reproductive health, unequal political representation and economic disparities, millions of women and girls are left unable to enjoy their social and economic rights.  

The gender pay gap continues to persist in labour markets around the world, with women paid, on average 24 per cent per cent less than men, and at the current rate of progress, it will take 170 years to close the gap. The disparity in labour income is in part, driven by low labour force participation, at just 54 per cent, compared to 80 per cent for men. Women experience lower average earnings when they are employed, particularly as sectors such as healthcare, social care and education disproportionately employ women and are characterised by low pay and poor working conditions.  

Women and girls spend around three times more time on unpaid care work than men.  Unpaid care work is critical for the well-being of society and makes a substantial contribution to countries’ economies. Yet, the contributions of women and girls are largely invisible. If unpaid care work was assigned a monetary value, it would account for between 10 and 39 per cent of GDP, depending on the country. Further, according to the OECD, “If women participated in the economy identically to men, it would add up to USD 28 trillion, or 26%, of annual GDP in 2025 compared with a business-as-usual scenario.

The unpaid care work women perform throughout their lives often obstructs their ability to access formal employment and therefore social insurance or decent wages, endangering their right to an adequate standard of living across their life cycle. Just 22.6 per cent of working-age women can access comprehensive social protection, compared to 34.3 per cent of men. Older women often face a gender pension gap

Social protection is a fundamental right and a key tool to address gender inequality and poverty. Universal and inclusive social protection values, recognises, and accounts for women’s vital contribution women make to economies. Universal social protection can start to change the discourse and recognise the work they do in the care economy, providing income security to address the risks women and girls face throughout their lives.  

Reading list:

Barrantes, A., Cretney, M. 2024. ‘Age Sensitive, Disability Inclusive and Gender Responsive Care and Support Systems’, Social Protection Technical Assistance, Advice and Resources (STAAR) Facility, DAI Global UK Ltd, United Kingdom 

Effective care and support systems are crucial for societal well-being, yet global inadequacies persist in providing inclusive care and support. In this evidence note, Barrantes & Cretney (2024) define inclusive and comprehensive care and support systems from a human rights and lifecycle perspective that is gender equal and disability-inclusive. The evidence note explains how low and middle-income countries can develop high-quality and effective care and support systems for children, persons with disabilities and older persons, and their families that are rights abiding, gender-responsive, disability-inclusive, fiscally sustainable, and contextually relevant. Section 5 sets out a series of recommendations based on advances in low and middle-income countries in setting up a care and support agenda, as well as on gender equity and disability inclusion frameworks. 

Cookson, T.P., Ebner, N., Amron, Y., and Kukreja, K. 2023. Social protection systems and gender: A review of the evidence. Global Social Policy, pp. 1-21.  

With advocacy for gender-transformative social protection systems growing, Cookson et al (2023) present an evidence-based overview of the current situation of gender and social protection. Through bringing together existing policy and scholarly literature the authors identify current policy trends and approaches in applying ‘gender transformative’ or ‘gender-responsive’ social protection mechanisms. While the implementation of such transformative systems is still nascent, the article discusses what evidence has driven change and areas for further research and consideration. A key theme throughout is that if policy is to be gender transformative it must be context-specific, shaped by a country’s specific political economy. 

Gender & Development Network. 2023. Achieving gender equality and women’s rights through public services and social protection. 

Recent global trends point to an ever-increasing push towards the privatisation of essential services, hampering advances in implementing gender-transformative public services and social protection. The Gender and Development Network (2023) assess who and what is driving this trend and explores how publicly financed services outweigh privately financed alternatives across four key areas: cost; equitable access to quality services; the provision of decent work, especially for women; and transparency and accountability.  

Gavrilovic, M., Petrics, H., Kangasniemi, M. 2023. Changing rural women’s lives through gender transformative social protection. A paper on gender transformative social protection concepts, evidence and practice in the context of food security and nutrition. Rome, FAO.  

A review by Gavrilovic et al (2023) offers a range of concrete entry points for transitioning from “gender-sensitive” social protection to addressing structural barriers to gender equality. The report identifies five levels as entry points to promote gender transformative change: individual, household, community, organizational and macro environment. The report also identifies examples of social protection interventions and complementary measures that deliberately incorporate a gender transformative angle and social norm change in their design. For example, India’s MGNREGS, depositing wages in women’s bank accounts, combined with training and work close to home, enabled women to push against restrictive labour norms and remain employed. 

UN Women. 2023. Addressing violence against women through social protection: A review of the evidence. Policy brief No. 26.  

In 2023 UN Women explored how social protection systems can prevent and respond to violence against women (VAW). The brief focuses on the importance of a system-wide approach, arguing that no single policy or scheme, such as a cash transfer, can provide adequate coverage for the full range of risks that women face. As such, the brief identifies three key entry points for social protection systems to address VAW. These include increasing multisectoral coordination, adopting an accompaniment model approach to leverage existing networks of support, and training front-line implementers. However, evidence on the application of social protection systems to address VAW is still emerging, presenting the need to identify further opportunities for system-wide response mechanisms to ensure women are protected. 

Satriana, S., and Attenborough, J. 2023. Old age pensions in Pacific: benefits for women. https://devpolicy.org/old-age-pensions-in-the-pacific-benefits-for-women-20230502/ 

Satriana and Attenborough (2023) highlight advances in the Pacific in implementing universal old-age pensions, providing women with greater income security in old age. They find that most countries across the Pacific (Kiritibati, Timor-Leste, Nauru, Fiji, Samoa, Tuvalu and Tonga) have rolled out universal government-financed old age pensions. This is particularly crucial for women in the region who have low labour force participation in comparison to men. Often even if women are engaged in paid work, it is typically in vulnerable employment conditions with low income and their ability to accrue savings is compounded by employment breaks due to prescribed caregiver responsibilities. As a result, universal old age pensions are the most common form of social protection in the region, creating a strong foundation for increased investment into women’s economic security.