Photo: Gates Foundation
Ageing populations, and rapid economic and social transformation, are creating tremendous pressures on social security systems throughout the world. Traditional family and gender roles have changed over the last decades, with a decline in fertility rates and the rapid rise in women’s participation in the labour force. Taken together, these trends pose ongoing opportunities for ensuring equality in access to social protection between women and men – but major challenges remain.
Access to social health protection
The theme of International Women's Day this year is "Empower Rural Women: End Hunger and Poverty". Rural women are one of the most vulnerable groups in terms of social protection coverage. The reduction of maternal and child mortality through social security maternity benefits remains as one of the most urgent global challenges for social protection. The World Health Organization estimates that 500,000 mothers die each year during childbirth and 11 million children die before the age of 5.
Improving access to social health care remains a key to reducing mortality rates. Studies confirm that in most countries, coverage of cash benefits before and after birth is limited to formal sector employees, and there are striking differences in access to maternal health care both between, and within, countries.
Despite gains in some areas, in low-income countries, no more than 35 per cent of all women in rural areas have access to professional health services, while in urban areas the access rate amounts to an average of about 70 per cent – over 20 percentage points lower than the access in high-income countries.
Social protection and the labour market
International Women’s Day has its roots in the struggle by women for decent working conditions. Today, even in developing countries with high economic growth, increasing numbers of workers – most often women – experience insecure employment, such as casual labour, home work and self-employment. This situation continues to impact women’s access to social security protection.
Changes in the design of family benefits, and the substantial improvement of maternity protection, have brought about positive changes for women desiring to reconcile family and work life in many countries, thereby improving the equality of treatment of women in legislation and practice. However, serious inequalities continue to exist.
Ageing in dignity
Social security coverage varies significantly worldwide. Regardless of the scope of coverage, a significant gender gap appears in all regions, especially in old age: elderly women are less covered than elderly men.
Because women live longer than men, and their life expectancy has increased more than men – from 48 to 67 years in the last 50 years – they form the majority of older persons. Research demonstrates that women accumulate social and economic disadvantages over their lives and careers, owing to their occupation of unpaid, low-paid or informal economy work. Women therefore continue to be less often entitled to contributory pension benefits, and their pensions are often significantly lower than those of men due to lower earnings and shorter contribution periods.
Despite increasing international attention to ageing societies and older persons, in many societies, older persons, and especially older women, still face age discrimination in the workplace and lack access to rights, jobs and social security.
Social security is a human right, but one that is accessible to a minority of people. Despite significant improvements in access to social security for many women in recent decades, many more still struggle to secure adequate coverage, to the detriment of both social capital and economic development. Much more remains to be done in bridging the gender gap in social security.
Updated version of an article first published in March 2011