By Beth Goldblatt
The welfare safety net has been eroded in many developed countries over recent decades. Since the global financial crisis, austerity measures involving welfare cutbacks have worsened poverty in a number of European nations. This crisis has also had a major impact on the economies of the developing world, leading to food insecurity, job losses and increased poverty. Poor women, already on the margins, have often been hardest hit. Social security is meant to provide a buffer against hardship and lack of income that arises when people lose jobs, become sick, grow old or face disabilities. It is meant to assist families and provide support to those members of society that do not earn a sufficient income to meet their basic needs. It can also play an important role in addressing gender inequalities that cause the major burden of poverty to be placed on women. In 2007 the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) produced General Comment No. 19 on the right to social security. This statement of interpretation of the right recognises the gender dimensions of poverty and the role of social security, in every society, to directly assist women in need.
By recommending that State parties remove factors that create unequal wage outcomes or address the impact of family responsibilities, the General Comment hints at more structural changes that might be required to the workplace, economy and society. This substantive and more far-reaching approach is needed if gender inequalities in social security are to be addressed. By requiring States to take account of care responsibilities in calculating benefits, it goes considerably further than most countries are doing at present and renders visible care work that is so often naturalised and ignored. It recognises that women generally earn less than men and face greater financial hardship over the course of their working lives.
While women’s unequal care burden is acknowledged, the General Comment does not talk about increasing the role of men in care so as to begin to change gender relations in society. It also does not expressly note that women are often involved in unpaid subsistence work, in family enterprises and in household and reproductive labour which means they have no opportunities to access contributory social insurance. Their labour is not seen as work. In addition, the fact that some members of society have access to higher paid social insurance benefits while others, often women, must settle for more modest social assistance benefits (where these exist at all) raises questions about the role of rights in undoing this more structural inequality. The General Comment makes no mention of violence against women. Violence and sexual harassment affect many women’s earning capacity, requiring them to leave or move jobs or remain unemployed. Addressing gender-based violence and other discriminatory practices along with labour market restructuring and the reconfiguration of care are essential if women are to have equal rights to social security. The right to social security should be seen as a vehicle for addressing women’s poverty and disadvantage and could also play a role in building more gender equal societies.
Beth Goldblatt is a Visiting Fellow of the Australian Human Rights Centre, University of New South Wales, and an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. Beth is the co-organiser, with Professor Lucie Lamarche of the University of Ottawa, of the International Initiative to Promote Women’s Right to Social Security and Protection. The Initiative recently held a series of webinars. The papers and videos from the webinars can be accessed at http://www.cdp-hrc.uottawa.ca/?p=4575 .
A longer version of this post is published in the Human Rights Defender, a magazine of the Australian Human Rights Centre, Issue 21(2) August 2012.