Editor’s note: The UN Human Rights Council Working Group on Discrimination against Women in Law and in Practice presented a thematic report on women’s economic and social life with a focus on economic crisis to the Human Rights Council on 16th June. This post is a redacted version of the statement to the Council by Frances Raday, Rapporteur-Chair of the Working Group.
The report itself, including a version with annotations, as well as the background research documents, may be found here.
International human rights law guarantees a substantive and immediate right to equality for women in economic and social life and imposes an obligation of due diligence to prevent discrimination by private persons or entities.
Although most state constitutions guarantee equality and many have anti-discrimination legislation regarding employment and education, nevertheless, in some states, discriminatory legislation persists, particularly under personal law systems, denying women economic and social equality. While constitutional guarantees and anti-discrimination legislation are vital, they are not enough to produce equal opportunity for women in practice, in the face of negative stereotyping, multiple discrimination, gender-based violence and feminization of unpaid care responsibilities. To achieve de facto equality, it is essential to adopt a transformative agenda to eliminate cultural and structural barriers.
Although barriers to girls’ school attendance persist in some cultures, the education gap has been greatly reduced and disparities between girls and boys eliminated – even reversed – in some countries. However, gains in education have not consistently translated into equal economic opportunity or results.
Discrimination against women, especially in pregnancy and motherhood, exists globally. In employment, wage gaps persist, with job segregation and women clustered in service sector jobs with inferior working conditions. Greater accountability for employment discrimination is needed. Women are disparately concentrated in informal work, particularly in low-income countries. Especially vulnerable are domestic workers and migrants. To secure decent work for women, it is necessary to reduce or reconstruct informal work.
In the business sector, the contribution of gender diversity to enhancing economic performance and increasing sustainability has been documented. Nevertheless, there is a severe gender gap in top economic leadership at both the international and national levels. Good practice includes mandating gender quotas for corporate boards and for procurement contracts.
In the emerging area of corporate responsibility, disparate harm to women resulting from business and trade policies has been largely invisible. Corporate governance has produced a dramatic increase in resource and income inequalities, with harsh implications for women, who are lower on the value chain. Moves to export processing zones, reliance on homework and sweatshops and land dispossession are a locus for violation of human rights, and most victims are women. The Group recommends gender-mainstreaming the principles of corporate responsibility, as regards participation and redress.
The fact that care functions are performed largely by women creates a major structural barrier to women’s equal economic opportunity. Failure to properly integrate the biological function of reproduction and the gendered function of unpaid caring into macro-economic policy perpetuates this barrier.
States must overcome the barriers to women’s economic opportunities resulting from feminisation of care functions to facilitate choice by women and men in allocating care duties in order to reconcile work and family. The Group commends good practices for recognition, reduction and redistribution of unpaid care work, by provision of paid care leave equally for fathers and mothers; subsidised childcare services, tax deduction for care expenses; improving environmental infrastructures to reduce care burdens; and synchronizing school and working hours. The Group endorses the call by UN Women to subsidise affordable childcare as a social protection floor.
Women’s poverty and quality of life in older age derives from a culmination of stereotyping; precarious employment; informal labour; unpaid caring; interrupted careers and reduced labour force participation and provides a litmus test reflecting women’s economic situation throughout their life cycle. Good practices to reduce poverty of older women include non-contributory social pensions and reduction of contributory pension gender gaps by compensatory measures for childcare or joint annuities for spouses.
Gender-based violence is an obstacle to women’s equal economic opportunity, including domestic violence, violence and harassment in workplaces, schools, public services, the street and cyberspace. Good practice prohibits sexual violence or harassment in the all these arenas.
In economic crisis, particularly under austerity measures, there is disparate impact on women, increasing their precarious employment and unpaid care work. Economic crisis accentuates existing structural economic disadvantages for women and may provide an opportunity to tackle entrenched patterns of gender inequality. Gender-sensitive strategies have been applied successfully in some countries to avoid labour market exclusion, loss of social protection floors and reduction of social services.
The right to gender equality must both be mainstreamed into all post-2015 development goals and remain a stand-alone goal to incorporate transformative structural change required for women’s de facto equality and empowerment. This requires inclusion of women in leadership in economic decision making; gender sensitive analysis of the principles of corporate responsibility; enhanced accountability for employment discrimination; reduction and reconstruction of women’s informal work, particularly migrant and domestic work; a carefully engineered social protection floor for care services; and special measures for older women. The Working Group flags in particular the need to recognise the disparate impact of austerity measures on women and to adopt gender sensitive strategies that avoid labour market exclusion, loss of social protection floors and reduction of social services.