Pay for care work, adequate funding for health care, cash transfers free of conditionalities, and safe public transport are essential for advancing the rights of women and girls, the Commission on the Status of Women heard today.
Concluding its first week of discussions, the Commission held an interactive expert panel discussion on “Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls”, with a focus on harnessing synergies and securing finance.
Panellists shared challenges and success stories and noted that, while various advancements have been made against the backdrop of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, crippling challenges remain. They underscored the need for more coordinated and multisectoral approaches. Public services, such as education, transport, health care and energy, must work in tandem, they said.
Maritza Rosabal, Minister for Family and Social Inclusion of Cabo Verde, focusing her presentation on linking social protection and public services in national care systems, said that research recently conducted discovered that childcare is completely absent from public policy. She underscored that the finding served as an opportunity to look at what other countries are doing and how lobbying is used to provide care services. Some 70 per cent of the total workload in Cabo Verde is unpaid work. “This is quite a shock to the people who discovered it,” she continued. Different ministries are working on the goal of aligning national policy with the 2030 Agenda. A system of cash grants is working to assist the most vulnerable people. Those working in care industries must be able to make a living and have access to income‑generating opportunities.
Gita Sen, Director at the Ramalingaswami Centre on Equity and Social Determinants of Health at the Public Health Foundation of India, said that, despite difficult economic circumstances and constrained political space, social mobilizing and advocacy have opened the policy space for global agreements. Recognition of universal health care needs to be matched by adequate financing and ensuring of access to all women and girls, as well as groups that are vulnerable on grounds of poverty, ethnicity, race, caste, age, sexual orientation, disability, migrant or refugee status, and location. “The length of that list, and there is more, tells us a lot about the world we live in where so many face discrimination,” she added. Social protection ensures access, stimulates productive inclusion through opportunities for the poor and excluded, builds resilience and protects people from the risk of shock. Women and babies held captive until they pay fees or bribes have been noted in multiple contexts. And while abortion is legal in many parts of the world, stigma drives too many into unsafe circumstances. Moreover, HIV-positive girls and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons face discrimination and violence when seeking health services. The victims of deep poverty also suffer multiple forms of oppression.
Tara Patricia Cookson, Research Fellow at the University of British Columbia, Canada, said cash helps families afford basic goods. “This element of the programme should be celebrated,” she continued. Conditionalities on cash transfers, however, mask poor quality services. Studies show that, when Governments use conditionalities to increase demand for health services, they do not adequately invest in improving those services. “In rural areas, pregnant women or mothers will walk for hours to a clinic only to discover that it is closed,” she said. Conditionalities create opportunities for coercion as they are manipulated by local authorities to get women to do things that are not required of them. For many mothers, the line between what is really required and what officials tell them to do is often blurred. Conditionalities take the protection out of social protection. All over the world, women provide the majority of unpaid care labour. “But, what about when women themselves need care, where are those social protections?”, she asked, stressing the need to make social protections unconditional.
Nato Kurshitashvili, Gender Specialist in Transport Global Practice at the World Bank, shared a story of an engineer who commutes two to three hours each way to get to work. Transportation and childcare challenges make her even more susceptible to poverty. Transportation, social protection and public services are interconnected. “They are all equally important,” she said, stressing that harassment-free, affordable and accessible transport affects the lives of women and children. Women and men experience transport very differently. A study from Jordan has found that many women quit their jobs because they do not feel safe commuting to work. Women tend to have less income and are already less likely to be able to afford public transport. Harassment adds to the cost, she said. Even in New York, women on average spend more for safety reasons. In rural Yemen, women also paid more to use public transport for the same reason. The absence of women working in transport, as engineers, drivers and conductors, limits the ability of public transport to address concerns of women. Success in making transport work for women rests with acknowledging that transport is a means of accessing income generating opportunities.
Fernando Filgueira, Research Fellow, University of British Columbia, Canada, presented a paper on financing social protection, public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. Current trends make it difficult to achieve both Sustainable Development Goal 10 on reducing inequalities and the overarching objective to end poverty. Changing the trajectory goes beyond policy frameworks. If gender inequality is lowered, it contributes to lowering general income inequalities. However, the current trend stacks the odds against women. Adding insult to injury, unpaid work done by women is not recognized by policies and there is a lack of health, transport and social protection services. To change existing policies, efforts must be made to draft measures that recognize innate inequalities, gender bias and structural limitations while working towards narrowing gaps. Similarly, women also face limited access to education and the absence of childcare services. Moreover, most unpaid labour is done at home, but infrastructure often is provided to businesses only, leaving women without essential services, such as electricity and clean water. Making changes to current systems is an issue of political economy that requires changing the way resources are used, with labour market policies and other measures aimed at transforming society and reducing inequalities.
Christina Behrendt, of the International Labour Organization (ILO), serving as lead discussant, emphasized that all efforts must address the most vulnerable and those most likely to get left behind. She also highlighted that greater investment in the care, education and health sectors can create millions of jobs, noting that investments in social protection and related sectors will pay off in the long term. Countries have a choice about which route to take in terms of shaping policies today to move to a better place in the future.
In the ensuing discussion, participants offered examples from their countries and shared suggestions on how to make progress at harnessing synergies and earmarking funding. The representative of Cuba described several best practices, including approaches to achieving the 2030 Agenda goals based on cooperation among multiple ministries.
The representative of Italy said gender mainstreaming is becoming ever more relevant, since fragmented actions have been proven to produce unsustainable results. Adopting an approach of public inclusion, Italy introduced new measures addressing education, access to jobs and security. “These are all gears to the same engine,” he said, adding that the Government was working with non‑governmental organizations and other stakeholders to tackle problems such as violence against women.
The representative of Kenya said her country is building a new approach to delivering services, including cash transfers and payment platforms for beneficiaries, and adopted a policy that invests in health, housing, manufacturing and food security. So far, $300 million has been disbursed to 5 million households.
The representative of South Africa underscored the importance of gender‑responsive budgeting and emphasized a need to secure funding for such initiatives, including working with the private sector and other stakeholders. The challenge of social protection must aim at raising living standards for women, and Governments must ensure such efforts are adequately funded.
Speakers representing civil society shared their perspectives, with a representative from Women Engage for a Common Future, calling attention to burgeoning military budgets that could be more productively spent. Raising another concern, a speaker representing the Women’s Missionary Society said challenges go beyond changing policies and address root causes, such as the discrimination many African women and girls face.
Others called for action in various areas, with a representative of Fundacion para Estudio Investigacion de la Mujer of Argentina, speaking on behalf of a group of Latin American non-governmental organizations, asking that policies aim at eliminating barriers for domestic workers, migrants and those performing unpaid work or are self-employed. Moreover, efforts must combat corruption and tax evasion at all levels.
Many pointed at a dearth of political will in drafting the kind of policies that can make a difference in the lives of women. The representative of Asian‑Pacific Resources and Research Centre for Women said enhancing health financing depends on galvanizing political will, especially at a time when progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals is uneven and policies are rarely gender-responsive. As an example, she pointed at her region’s high rates of maternal mortality and the chronic lack of access to health services among the most marginalized. In this vein, the representative for the Center for Economic and Social Rights said that, while the money often exists, political will is needed to find it. Funds are badly distributed, and efforts must focus on reducing inequalities by redistributing fiscal investments.
In closing, panellists shared their ideas. Ms. Rosabal, reiterating that gender equality is a prerequisite to sustainable development, said all sectors should adopt an approach that considers many aspects, including access to land, water and technology. Mr. Filgueria said combating tax evasion and levying a global tax or a carbon tax are some options. Ms. Cookson said the current broken system must be fixed, with women’s voices and data being tools that can catalyse change.
Representative of the following non-governmental organizations also participated in the discussion: Plan International, Women in Informal Employment and the Yale International Relations Association.
The Commission on the Status of Women will meet again at 10 a.m. on Monday, 18 March to continue its work.
* The 9th Meeting was not covered.