Video by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
15 April 2021
Greetings to all of you. I am glad to have this opportunity to contribute to discussions about reform of the social protection system, which could bring many opportunities for change and progress for the people of Ukraine.
Social protection is a fundamental human right and an essential tool for reducing poverty. It is embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights thanks to Hernan Santa Cruz – a Chilean diplomat one of the drafters of the Universal Declaration. Today's event is named after his ground-breaking vision of a human rights agenda that is grounded in people's right to live free from deprivation, as well as from fear.
The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that the right to social protection is crucial to life in dignity, anywhere in the world. Ukraine, like other States, is grappling with the severe consequences of the pandemic, from the heavy toll of death and suffering to overcharged health systems, economic contraction and job losses. I understand that 6.3 million more people fell into poverty in 2020.
I want to say to those people, directly: we stand with you. We will do everything we can to help. And it is my view that taking immediate steps to build a better, more comprehensive social protection system is crucial to providing immediate, life-changing assistance – and to longer-term recovery from this crisis.
Pension reform will be a key part of this work. Older people are more than a quarter of Ukraine’s population; two-thirds of those older people are women. According to the State Pension Fund, 77 per cent of Ukraine’s pensioners receive income that is less than the minimum subsistence level.
Poverty among older women is even more severe: women’s pensions are on average 30 per cent below those of men.
With Ukraine continuing to age more in the coming years, reform now is important and timely. Pensions should support a decent income and reflect people's growing need for assistance as they age. We know from experience in other countries that this can enable older people to maintain their independence, and help them stay out of institutional care.
Whether in cash or in kind, benefits must be adequate, in amount and duration, to ensure everyone has the right to family protection, an adequate standard of living and adequate access to health care.
During the pandemic, Ukraine has increased its unemployment benefit, and I hope this sound move can become the standard practice. I also encourage the authorities to regularly monitor whether pensions are sufficient to ensure that beneficiaries can afford basic goods and services.
To protect everyone, it is important to strike a balance between contributory and non-contributory pension schemes. Many women, freelance workers, workers in the informal economy and marginalized people who suffer from discrimination may not have been in a position to contribute formally to the social protection system. But they have economic and social rights – as all of us do.
Older women are especially at risk. They live longer and traditional stereotypes and life-long unpaid care work have often impeded their access to formal employment, decent wages, and contributory social security systems.
Pensions systems that take into account women’s unequal care work, including care for children, can correct this imbalance and ensure that caring for others does not endanger women’s human rights.
But that does not mean these disproportionate burdens are ok. In the context of COVID-19, we have seen women’s unpaid care work increasing enormously, as they care for sick and older relatives, and look after children who have been at home all day. Yes, we absolutely need gender responsive social protection systems. But we also need far-reaching awareness-raising campaigns to promote shared family responsibility for work in the home. We need to reduce the heavy burden of unpaid care work which women carry all their lives – not just in Ukraine, but all over the world.
However, there is a specific issue in Ukraine that needs to be addressed. In 2019, some 600,000 pensioners in non-government controlled areas lost access to their pensions due to restrictions on movement across the line of contact, as well as complex administrative requirements. A further 270,000 have been unable to access their pension inside the government-controlled area.
It is essential that older people who are internally displaced, or whose lives have been otherwise impacted by the conflict, be able to access the pensions which are their right. The current draft legislation that delinks access to pensions from the registration of internally displaced people is a very important step forward, for them and for this country as a whole.
Ukraine's reformed pension system can become universal, sensitive to age and sex, and accessible and sustainable for present and future generations. By helping to analyse gaps in coverage, human rights analysis can help reforms address the multiple dimensions of discrimination and inequality that generate poverty – and can provide practical guidance to make people and their well-being the priority.
The UN policy paper on social protection, which is being issued today, is one such tool.
I also encourage a broad national debate on these topics, with broad participation by pensioners, trade unions, social movements and women's groups.
As head of State and government in Chile, I was very engaged in the work of advancing the principle of solidarity, including with respect to older women and men. I know this may not always be an easy task.
To uphold the right to social protection for all older women and men, including internally displaced people and those who live in conflict-affected areas. Ukraine will have to mobilize resources. This may involve progressive taxation measures, strengthening the capacity to collect taxes, fighting tax evasion and other forms of abuse, and tackling corruption. We will need to seek international cooperation and assistance.
But it is my personal experience – as well as the repeated experience of my Office – that these reforms will assist in the massive reduction of poverty and inequalities – and strengthen social cohesion and economic resilience.
I wish you a productive day of discussions to contribute to successful reform.