Making social protection work for and with mothers

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Written Statement
63rd Session of UN Commission on the Status of Women – #CSW63
Priority theme: Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure
for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls

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Making social protection work for and with mothers

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hen paid work and unpaid care work is combined, women work more than men1. Yet, women make up the majority of the world’s poor – and most of them are mothers. Persistent gender inequality, which is rooted in gender norms, the division of assets, work and responsibilities, and the systematic devaluation of “women’s work”, adds to their vulnerability and perpetuates the feminization of poverty.

Social protection, whose main objectives are to reduce and prevent poverty, and to level off inequalities, is essential for women empowerment. In its most basic form, social protection includes the provision of essential health care, as well as income security along the life course – two pillars which are especially relevant to women in their role as mothers.

Universal health coverage and maternity protection is the cornerstone of a social protection system that works for women

Health is the cornerstone of human development, and a fundamental right. However, for half of the world’s population, this basic need is far from satisfied2, whether in developing countries, for lack of infrastructures, or in developed countries, for lack of access. Healthcare is especially crucial for women during pregnancy and around childbirth, both for the mother and the child. Universal health coverage must be achieved as a basic element of social protection.

Too many mothers still die today in relation to pregnancy. According to the World Health Organization, the global figure in 2015 was 216 deaths per 100,000 live births – with large disparities between regions. With the Sustainable Development Goals and target 3.1 UN Member States have committed to divide this figure by three by 2030.

The example of the United States, where this mortality rate is increasing, shows the importance of social protection measures that have proven successful in many countries:

– Access to high quality healthcare, including mental health, with antenatal visits for information and identification of high risk, as well as
– Maternity protection, including maternity leave and income security. Access to healthcare, especially in the first months of life is also essential to maximize the chances of survival and harmonious development of children. Social protection should go beyond essential healthcare in supporting parents, especially mothers in vulnerable situations, and ensuring that every child receives the nurturing care that will support their development to their full potential and make a difference for their future. Healthcare infrastructure (including health centers and qualified health professional), which offers high quality maternal and child health services that are accessible for all, must be considered as one of the best investment a country can make, for both women empowerment and child development.

Beyond cash transfers: addressing the unequal distribution of unpaid family care work to empower women and lift them out of poverty

Cash transfer is a proven social protection policy instrument to ensure income security along the life course. It is especially powerful when the beneficiaries are mothers: there is evidence from many studies that mothers typically spend their income on food, healthcare and the education for children, whereas men tend to spend a higher proportion of their income for personal needs.

However, reducing inequalities and poverty also requires addressing the root causes of women’s particular vulnerabilities, beginning with their disproportionate share of unpaid family care work.

According to the International Labour Organisation, globally women perform 76.2 per cent of unpaid care work – that is the essential work and responsibility of maintaining the household and feeding and caring for family members. In poor rural households, women’s work is also dominated by time intensive activities such as water and firewood collection, as well as care of livestock and subsistence agriculture. All too often, women compensate through drudgery work the lack of basic infrastructure, water and energy in particular. This large share of unpaid family care work results in women’s “time poverty” and greatly limits their ability to perform other income-generating