Regional stakeholders say a holistic and gender-responsive approach to social protection is needed

Date: Thursday, February 14, 2019

Author: Chris Dickson

Bangkok, Thailand – Gender inequalities remain profound and entrenched across Asia and the Pacific, despite recent rapid economic progress. Women’s inequitable access to health, education and other basic social services starts young and has a life-long, cumulative impact on their social and economic opportunities.

Asia-Pacific Regional Preparatory Meeting for CSW63 at UNCC Bangkok. Photo: UN Women/Pathumporn Thongking
Asia-Pacific Regional Preparatory Meeting for CSW63 at UNCC Bangkok. Photo: UN Women/Pathumporn Thongking
Anna-Karin Jatfors
Anna-Karin Jatfors, Regional Director (ad interim) of the UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. Photo: UN Women/Pathumporn Thongking

To overcome such disadvantages, "investment in well-coordinated and gender-responsive social protection systems, public services and sustainable infrastructure is essential to support women’s livelihoods, health and well-being, be it childcare services, health and education, or public transport,” said Anna-Karin Jatfors, Regional Director (ad interim) of the UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. She was speaking to government officials and civil society representatives gathered for the Asia-Pacific Regional Preparatory Meeting for the 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW63), in Bangkok on 13-14 February 2019.

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) priority theme this year is “Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.” Social protection systems seek to stabilize incomes, promote livelihoods and protect households from economic shocks to social vulnerabilities, including from social exclusion, abuse, natural hazards and disasters.

There has been progress in all these areas across the Asia-Pacific region, but more remains to be done to ensure that social protection responds equally to the needs of men and women and that the many positive developments in regulations and government programmes actually translate into more equitable access for women and girls.

Inequitable access to health, social and economic opportunities early on has a cumulative effect on vulnerabilities throughout life and into old age. Most importantly, women and girls’ disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work limits their opportunities to participate in formal employment and contributes to their own long-term social security, as well as to the wider economy.

Hongjoo Hahm Deputy Executive Secretary UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) at UNCC, Bangkok, Thailand
Hongjoo Hahm Deputy Executive Secretary UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) at UNCC, Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: UN Women/Pathumporn Thongking

“Social protection could be a critical enabler of progressive development outcomes in our region,” said Hongjoo Hahm, Deputy Executive Secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, in his opening remarks. He said the region’s governments proportionately spend half as much of their budget on social protection as the global average, and almost a third more on men than on women. “Currently, only 21 of 49 countries offer benefits to children and families and less than 4 out of 10 people have access to any kind of health care. If we raise our expenses on social protection to the global average, then at least 233 million people would be able to live outside of moderate poverty.”

The discussion in Bangkok emphasized the importance of public services, including health and education to protecting workers’ rights and promoting equitable infrastructure. Delegates heard from Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, a former Indonesian domestic worker campaigning for the equal rights of migrant workers. During the opening session, she said that universal health care and better access to education are essential to give women equitable options in life. When women do resort to low-skilled work abroad, she said, they need and deserve the full protection of their rights and opportunities.

Inequitable access extends to public services and infrastructure that are designed without gender considerations, overlooking issues of accessibility, availability and safety for women and girls. Ms. Jatfors cited the example of one marketplace in Fiji, where women vendors had benefited from gender-responsive investments in market infrastructure.

“I saw the accommodation centre that had been built to house the women vendors coming from the rural areas, who until then had slept under their market tables. I saw the new restrooms that had been built for women after the city council recognized that you could not have the same amount of bathrooms for men and women when 75 per cent of the vendors are women.”

Photo: UN Women/Pathumporn Thongking
Anna-Karin Jatfors, Regional Director (ad interim) of the UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. Photo: UN Women/Pathumporn Thongking

UN Women’s Markets for Change project, which is funded by Australia and Canada, has also built partnerships with local government and private banks to bring health services and financial services to the market directly, as the women find it difficult to leave their stalls, she added. The next step is expanding childcare services. “Marketplaces are especially relevant to the theme of this CSW, as they are used first and foremost by women, both as vendors and as consumers,” added Ms. Jatfors.

The regional preparatory meeting was held ahead of CSW63, which is to take place at UN Headquarters in March. It will also be in preparation for the 25th anniversary and review of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (Beijing+25), due in 2020.

Key recommendations that emerged from the regional preparatory meeting included the need to:

  • Strengthen the policy frameworks and legislations to enhance interlinkages between systems of social protection, public services and sustainable infrastructure
  • Identify and address access barriers, both financial and non-financial, including legal restrictions and discriminatory social norms and practices, to meet the needs of all women and girls
  • Support the gender-responsive implementation of social protection
  • Promote quality gender-responsive public services
  • Mainstream gender in infrastructure, and
  • Promote measures to accelerate the implementation of comprehensive systems of social protection, public services and sustainable infrastructure.
Photo: UN Women/Pathumporn Thongking
Asia-Pacific Regional Preparatory Meeting for CSW63 at UNCC Bangkok. Photo: UN Women/Pathumporn Thongking

Several milestones are adding to a sense of urgency this year. “Despite all that we know, actions remain too slow, insufficiently coordinated and under-funded to meet the deadline of 2030 the world has set for gender equality,” Ms Jatfors said. In addition to the Beijing +25 review she pointed out that 2020 will also mark the first 5-year milestone in implementing the 2030 Agenda.

Ms. Jatfors highlighted emerging trends in the region which require a gender lens to ensure women’s rights and opportunities are guaranteed, namely: new technologies, rapid urbanization, demographic shifts, and climate change and environmental issues.

This Regional Preparatory Meeting was jointly convened by UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific and United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Population Fund, and the Asia-Pacific UN Regional Coordination Mechanism Thematic Working Group on Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women (TWG-GEEW). It was preceded by a regional civil society strategizing workshop on 11 and 12 February 2019, organized by the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), with the support of UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the Canadian Government. Participants of this workshop also participated in the Asia-Pacific Regional Preparatory Meeting.