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Gender inequalities persist as deadline for MDGs draws near

Produced by ILO NY

The situation for many women and girls has only worsened as a result of the crisis. Can social protection measures offer a way out?

Development for women and girls has been slowed by a more limited access to labour markets and essential public services, according to participants of an introductory panel at the 58th UN Commission on the Status of Women taking place in New York.

The situation for women and girls has only worsened since the onset of austerity measures that were adopted in many countries following the 2008 crisis, according to one ILO official.

Isabel Ortiz, Director of the ILO’s Social Protection Department, delivered a presentation that outlined many of the inequalities women and girl’s experience in the labour market, including overrepresentation in vulnerable employment and in the agricultural and informal sectors. Lack of access to formal jobs also limits women’s opportunities to participate in social security programs or make investments in their own human development.

Ortiz said that after an initial period of expansion in social expenditure designed to bolster cash transfer and other social protection programs, many governments around the world had enacted crippling austerity measures that had disproportionate impacts on women.

Generally, most governments have an understanding that in an economic downturn, social protection is beneficial,” said Ortiz. “But from 2010 onwards, most countries started contracting public expenditures. Most countries are limiting subsidies, and many countries are experiencing protests. Others are cutting wages, including public sector employees such as educators or health staff [many of whom are women] who have now had their incomes cut or capped.”

Also participating in the panel was Radhika Balakrishnan, Executive Director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University. In preparations for the Commission, Balakrishnan said that a lack of relationship between Millennium Declaration and the MDGs had been identified as a potential reason for the lack of progress.

“The Declaration was very explicit about its commitment to human rights,” said Balakrishnan. “But something seems to have changed on its way to the MDGs.” She cited recommendations on the need to address structural inequalities and use key human rights principles to guide the post-2015 agenda. In particular, she said that policies adversely effecting levels of development, such as fiscal austerity, should not be pursued.

Virginia Gomes, Member and Rapporteur of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), said the slow progress for women was primarily due to insufficient gender sensitivity in the formulation of the MDGs.

“In MDG 1, there is no indication of the gender dimensions of poverty,” said Gomez. “MDG 3 did serve the purpose of calling greater attention to gender disparities, particularly in education, but much less in employment and political participation. It does not address the underlying causes of gender inequality that impact negatively on the fulfillment of all the MDGs.”

Chrispine Sibande, Senior Policy Associate of Ipas Malawi, spoke about the sexual and reproductive rights of women and of the importance of using human rights standards to pursue the MDGs for women and girls. Meanwhile, Ursula Schäfer-Preuss, Chair of the Global Water Partnership (GWP) cited the work to be done on getting greater proportions of women and girls in to employment and decent work.

In her presentation, Ortiz spoke about an emerging consensus that a different type of economic recovery was possible. She referred to the unanimous adoption of ILO Recommendation 202 on Social Protection Floors (SPFs) at the 2012 International Labour Conference. As defined in the Recommendation, SPFs offer basic income guarantees throughout the life cycle, rooted in internationally recognized human rights principles.

Ortiz added that the financing of SPFs could be arranged through various means, which represent political choices on the part of governments, rather than purely budgetary ones, and noted that ambitious efforts to extend SPFs even in times of crisis would not be without precedent.

“In 1929, governments did not react immediately [following the onset of the Great Depression], it actually took them a few years to react. But then they took very bold, significant measures. They took a different type of employment approach to foster jobs, they regulated the financial sector and expanded social security in a big way,” Ortiz said, “and the same big push can happen today.” Other panelists agreed.

“It is not simply that the resources are not there,” Gomez stated. “It is that the realization of rights to development and equality are of insufficient importance.”

“We need to look at how budgets are created in the first place and what decisions are made,” Balakrishnan said. “Resources seem to have just appeared when the financial sector needed them, and then they were cut when social policy needed them.”

Ortiz identified a number of ways in which governments could continue to mobilize resources for social protection expenditures, including through increased tax revenues, restructuring of debt and fighting illicit financial flows, among other measures.

The activities and discussions at the 58th session of the Commission will continue until 21 March.

This article has been produced by the ILO Office in New York. It is also available at


20.03.2014 - Victoria Giroud-Castiella