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Statement by by the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights to the 68th session of the General Assembly

New York, 23 October 2013

Mr Chairperson, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am honoured to present my sixth and final report to the General Assembly in my capacity as Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

When I assumed this mandate five years ago, the financial crisis had just shaken the global economy to its core. Today, the world’s poor continue to suffer the consequences of the crisis and in many countries poverty is more severe and inequality more deeply entrenched than a few years ago. Austerity measures taken by many governments are exacerbating this trend yet further. The international commitment to spare no effort in freeing every man, woman and child from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty, that all States assumed more than a decade ago, remains a vision rather than a reality.

However, we have also witnessed some progress. The issue of inequality seems to have gained a space in the political agendas of many countries. Now that the 2015 deadline of the Millennium Development Goals is approaching and world leaders are discussing ways to build on and expand the progress achieved, there is an opportunity to make real progress in tackling poverty and inequality.

I am encouraged by the fact that there is now an explicit recognition that respect for all human rights is an essential prerequisite not only for the attainment of the MDGs but for development in general. There is also a broad consensus that empowering women and realizing their rights is one of the keys to tackling poverty, on the level of families, communities and whole societies.

I believe that the post-2015 global development agenda can make a major contribution to improving the lives of those who have been left behind if serious efforts are made to include meaningful and measureable commitments to improving women’s human rights enjoyment and progressing towards gender equality.

The report I present today is designed to draw attention to an issue that has stubbornly remained overlooked by policy-makers, despite being at the foundation of all our societies, critical to economic growth, social development and wellbeing.

The issue that I am referring to, which is a major barrier to women’s rights, equitable development and gender equality, is the unequal distribution of unpaid care work.

Around the world women perform the vast majority of unpaid care work - such as cooking, cleaning, caring for children and older persons and fetching water and fuel. In all countries, women work longer hours than men when unpaid work is taken into account – and yet receive less financial reward or recognition.

Women living in poverty typically spend even more time on unpaid care – because they cannot afford timesaving technology or outside help and have limited access to services and infrastructure that can ease the time burden and drudgery.

We cannot talk about ‘women’s empowerment’ ignoring the question of who does the cooking, cleaning and caring for their households. Dedication to unpaid care work, without support and recognition, limits the time and opportunities for women and girls to lift themselves out of poverty and to enjoy their rights on an equal basis with men. Care work is a social and collective responsibility that should be distributed more fairly between women and men, between the State and households, and between the haves and the have-nots. If we really aim to empower women, we must ensure that it is better valued, supported and shared.

Mr Chairperson,

It is high time that we recognized the unequal distribution of unpaid care work - fueled by discriminatory gender stereotypes about women and men’s roles in society and in the family - as a major human rights issue. Inequality in this matter underlies many other aspects of discrimination against women and therefore has much wider implications for gender equality. If we agree that gender inequality and discrimination are major concerns in terms of human rights and social development, then we must pay attention to unpaid care work.

Furthermore, disproportionate care responsibilities throughout their lives create multiple obstacles for women in enjoying many of their human rights equally with men, or indeed at all.

Women’s right to paid, decent work is obstructed in many ways by unpaid care. Heavy unpaid care responsibilities can stop women from working at all, but also make it more likely they will be forced to accept low-paying informal jobs, blocking their right to decent work. When pregnant women or mothers lose their jobs as a result of discriminatory assumptions about their caring roles, this is a direct violation of the right to work.

In terms of the right to education, the impact can start from an early age, causing irrevocable harm to girls’ life chances. Girls may be withdrawn from school to undertake care work in the home, or these tasks may impact the time and energy they can devote to schoolwork, hindering their progress relative to boys. In later life, women often have less access to training and further education because of their care work.

The right to health is another significant concern. There is only so much care a person can give without damage to their mental or physical health. Unpaid care work can be arduous, stressful, emotionally difficult and even dangerous (for example through exposure to communicable diseases, fumes or burns from cooking stoves or risk of assault while fetching fuel or water). Moreover, women with heavy unpaid care workloads may not be able to access adequate healthcare due to lack of time or money.

The right to social security is also negatively impacted, implying that in many societies, poverty is a woman’s reward for a lifetime spent caring for others.

Enjoyment of many other rights is also negatively impacted by heavy burdens of unpaid care, from freedom of association to the rights to water and sanitation.

Particularly critical is the right to participation. One of the most significant factors inhibiting women’s capacity to be further involved in public and political life is care work that ties them to the home, men’s failure to share it and the lack of services supporting this work.

For the women who walk miles each day to collect water and fuel and those who have to work a long, hard ‘second shift’ when they get home from their paid job, time for education, health or simple leisure is a rare luxury. The unequal and heavy work they do is severely impacting the enjoyment of their rights and it is major barrier for gender equality.

Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Human rights create duties and obligations. In the report, I explain the obligations of States with regard to unpaid care work, under existing human rights standards. The main message is that States have a duty to act. In order to achieve gender equality and women’s equal enjoyment of rights States must tackle the heavy burdens and unequal distributions of unpaid care. The report I am presenting today calls on all States, whatever their level of development, to position care as a social and collective responsibility, and provides concrete recommendations in this regard. From equality legislation to investment in infrastructure and public service provision, there are a wide variety of areas in which different States should take action, taking into account the specific challenges they face in achieving gender equality. In all cases, however, policy-makers must apply a care perspective: this means that they must always examine whether any specific policy or intervention is sensitive to the demands of unpaid care work and its gendered distribution, whether it implicitly reinforces care work as women’s sole responsibility or in contrast challenges negative gender stereotypes.

Labour rights such as paid maternity leave, parental leave and flexible working are certainly crucial. However, for women living in poverty, the most important action that governments can take to reduce and redistribute their unpaid care work and boost their rights enjoyment, is improving public service provision and infrastructure.

Often, public services are inadequate or inaccessible for women living in poverty – especially in rural areas or informal settlements. As a result, women have to take on more unpaid care work: caring for the sick, elderly, children, persons with disabilities and fetching water and fuel. In sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water, equivalent to a year’s worth of labour by the entire workforce in France. Lack of decent roads and public transport mean long journeys to work, health centres and schools, exacerbating women’s time poverty.

In contrast, where States pro-actively improve the quality and accessibility of public services in poor areas, the time and potential of women living in poverty is freed for employment, education, and participation in social, cultural and political life. This leads to greater equality, rights enjoyment and empowerment.

Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

In conclusion, it is high time that States, human rights advocates and development actors recognize the importance of unpaid care work and its impact on poverty, inequality and human rights.

This is a concern in all of our societies. Nearly 20 years ago, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action highlighted the importance of tackling the unequal distribution of paid and unpaid work between men and women as an essential step towards gender equality. Unfortunately, very little progress has been made in that time. Across the world, millions of women still find that poverty is their reward for a lifetime spent caring, and unpaid care provision by women and girls is still treated as an infinite, cost-free resource.

Indeed, the problem is compounded by various current trends and phenomena that are putting pressure on caregivers around the world. Austerity measures in developed and developing countries are intensifying care needs in the home through cuts to community services, health budgets and care services for the elderly, children and persons with disabilities. Meanwhile, in countries afflicted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, rather than providing more extensive State-funded health care and palliative care in hospitals or communities, governments are relying on ‘home-based care’ – again, usually undertaken by women living in poverty at great cost to their income-earning or other opportunities.

By presenting this report, I hope I can convince advocates and policy-makers that the recognition, reduction and redistribution of unpaid care work must be a central plank of the struggle for gender equality. Without concerted effort on this matter by States, women living in poverty will be obstructed in enjoying the benefits of development and their human rights fully and equally, and the inter-generational transmission of poverty will continue.

In this regard, the potential of post-2015 agenda to eradicate poverty, tackle inequality and boost enjoyment of human rights would be greatly enhanced by including commitments on unpaid care work and by encouraging States to consider the care economy when creating and pursuing goals and targets in relevant sectors including employment and social protection. Care must be understood as a social and collective responsibility - crucial for human rights-based development and poverty reduction in all countries.

Thank you.