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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Women’s empowerment, gender equality and social protection: Where next?

16 September 2019

Video statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

16 September 2019

I am very sorry that I can't be at this meeting, to benefit from your experience and expertise in the many interlinkages between better social protection, and greater effective empowerment of women and girls.

These are both very fundamental human rights issues – core to my mandate, and close to my heart.

Universal social protection measures are powerful levers to reduce poverty, promote inclusion and establish live of dignity in societies that are more equal. They are a key element to advance the Sustainable Development Goals.

And their contributions are particularly clear in promoting equality for women and girls. I want to emphasise this point: by decreasing the burdens and obstacles that weigh so heavily on the shoulders of women around the world, the work you do, as experts in social protection policies, helps tremendously to advance women’s human rights.

Women bear a disproportionate burden of unpaid care work. They are more likely than men to be employed in the informal sector, in poorly paid and precarious jobs. This gives them little  access to social insurance benefits, such as unemployment insurance or pensions.

Currently, an estimated 740 million women work in the informal economy. In low-income countries, 92 per cent of women are employed informally, compared with 87.5 per cent of men. Even where women are relatively well covered, their retirement benefits tend to be lower than men’s. In the European Union, for example, women’s pensions are on average 40 per cent lower than men’s are.

We need retirement benefits to take into account women’s unequal burden of unpaid care work – including years spent raising children, which may have prevented them from making equal contributions.

Measures to advance universal health care also have particularly powerful benefits for women in this context– alleviating the cost, and perhaps some of the weight, of the work they do in caring for others.

Steps like these are valuable. But for maximum impact in ending generations of harmful and discriminatory practises, we need them to be joined up, in comprehensive approaches which work in synergy across the spectrum of government action.

Health insurance programmes need to include access to sexual and reproductive health services and information, so that women, girls and LGBTI people are able to make autonomous choices about their bodies, their sexuality and their lives.

We need affordable childcare and paid parental leave to support equal access to work.

We need education systems to confront and push back against harmful gender stereotypes.

We need social security systems to include non-contributory schemes in order to support young people in their search for a decent job, and help them unlock their full potential.

And we need all these measures, and more, to be drawn up, implemented and evaluated with the meaningful participation of women, girls and LGBTI people from every kind of background.

That is what empowerment means. Genuine inclusion and co-design of equal and sustainable societies.

All this is feasible.

The ILO estimates that systems which include maternity benefits for all new mothers; allowances for all children; benefits for all persons with severe disabilities; and universal old-age pensions cost an average of just 1.6 per cent of GDP.

Even the poorest countries can afford universal social protection systems. But it takes political will.

Today we are at challenging moment in the history of the women’s rights movement. After decades of progress, strong head-winds are being whipped up to try to push women back into subservience.

Twenty five years ago, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action outlined concrete actions to ensure increased and equal access to social security for women.

We need to live up to those commitments. We need to keep pushing, to advance women's well-being; their dignity; their autonomy; and their rights.

Thank you for the work you do to advance these goals.