Social Protection

Building social protection floors and comprehensive social security systems

Gender Equality and National Social Protection Floors

Updated by Jonathan Evershed , Lou Tessier on 14.10.2013

At its 101st session in June 2012, the International Labour  Conference adopted  the Recommendation on national floors of social protection (Social Protection Floors Recommendation, 2012 (No. 202)). This Recommendation provides guidance to member states in establishing and maintaining social protection floors as a fundamental element of their national social security systems, and in implementing these floors within strategies for the extension of social security that progressively ensures higher levels of provision, guided by ILO social security standards. Crucially, the  Recommendation emphasises the importance of social protection floors as tools to “prevent and reduce poverty, inequality, social exclusion, and social insecurity, and promote equal opportunity and gender equality”.

Social protection floors have an important role to play in redressing the gender inequalities inherent in many social protection policies and schemes, and in filling gendered coverage gaps. Even though many current social protection schemes do not explicitly take gender into account with their design, implementation and monitoring mechanisms, these schemes can nonetheless contribute either to promoting gender equality or to reinforcing existing inequalities. Ensuring that gender relations are given due consideration at each stage of policy design, implementation and monitoring can ensure a positive impact on gender equality on the part of social protection programmes.


Women’s employment patterns and gendered coverage gaps

Currently, the majority of social security programmes are formal, employment-based and contributory. Women often face two related difficulties in accessing these programmes.

1. Where they are in employment, women generally earn less than men, are more likely to work in the informal economy or be in casual, temporary or part-time employment.

2. Much of the work undertaken by women – house-work, care of children and other dependents – is not formally recognised as such and therefore renders them ineligible to participate in social protection programmes.

Women are also highly represented in sectors of employment which tend to be poorly protected by labour and social security legislation, such as in domestic work or agriculture. Thus, many women are not in a position to contribute to and therefore benefit from social insurance schemes.

Worldwide, women experience greater difficulty than men in accessing essential social services including health-care and education. Allocation of resources at the household level tends to prioritise the needs of men and in times of crisis, women tend to face greater resource squeezes. Women’s access to social services is more affected by geographic factors of location and distance, owing, for instance, to cultural mœurs in many societies which preclude women from travelling on their own. Further, many services do not make adequate provision for women’s specific needs through, for instance, allocating sufficient resources to maternal or reproductive health-care. 

Gender-specific vulnerabilities 

Throughout the life-cycle, women are susceptible to gender-specific risks to life and well-being. Pregnancy and child-birth, for instance, engender particular health risks. Further, women are particularly susceptible to a number of diseases, including HIV/AIDS. On average, women’s life expectancy at birth is 4 years higher than that for men2, meaning that health needs associated with old-age also have a gendered dimension.

These physical vulnerabilities are underwritten in almost all societies by particular cultural and social norms and practices, and relationships between men and women in which men are dominant. Six of every ten of the world’s poor people are women. Domestic and other forms of gendered violence – overt and structural – represent increased health-risks for women.

Ultimately, gendered inequalities and gaps in social protection coverage reflect particular power hierarchies in which women tend to be disempowered.

UN Population Division (2010), Probabilistic Population Projections, based on the 2010 Revision of the World Population Prospects, <>

Extension of coverage and access to decent work

Through an emphasis on universal access and non-contributory schemes which extend provision to those working in the informal economy, national social protection floors can serve to integrate more women into social protection schemes.

The impact of non-contributory schemes for women can be substantial. In Costa Rica, 56.6% of non-contributory pension beneficiaries are women, and in Spain this figure is 81.8%1.

As an approach which seeks to integrate social protection with other social and economic policies, national social protection floors can promote the increased participation of women in formal labour markets. Public works programmes such as MGNREGA in India or the PSNP in Ethiopia pay men and women equal wages, and require that a third of participants are women. Further, the participation of women in these schemes is facilitated through child-care provision. A 2007 evaluation of Brazil’s Bolsa Familia found that the rate of participation in the labour market by women beneficiaries was 4.3% higher than that of non-beneficiaries, and 8% higher for beneficiaries in the poorest income decile2.

Women’s Empowerment

Evidence shows that social transfers, in cash or in kind, given directly to women can have better developmental outcomes than those given to men.

Providing women with their own resources can contribute to feelings and expressions of empowerment and self-confidence. While it should be noted that the impact of national social protection floor policies on women’s actual bargaining position has been mixed overall, where women are recipients of cash transfers, they seem often to carry a larger share of intra-household decision-making power. Further, involvement in such schemes can be correlated with increased participation in community activities and communal decision-making processes.

However, the conditions attached to such transfers, if not carefully designed, can entrench rather than transform specific gendered roles within households.

1 Guillén Rodriguez, A. M. with S. González Begega and C. Rodriguez (2010), Annual National Report 2010: Pensions, Health and Long-term Care, Analytical Support on the Socio-Economic Impact of Social Protection Reforms, Brussels/Strasbourg: EC/GVG

2 Veras Soares, F. and E. Silva, (2010), Conditional Cash Transfer Programmes and Gender Vulnerabilities: Case Studies of Brazil, Chile and Colombia, Working Paper no.69, Brasilia: International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth

It is evident that political will is required to support the adoption of gender mainstreaming throughout the process of designing, implementing and monitoring all aspects of a national social protection floor. Crucially, policy design should include provision for gender-differentiated monitoring and evaluation. National dialogue in designing, and participatory evaluation of particular schemes or mechanisms should be broad and inclusive, and meaningfully include women.

Coordination is central to ensuring effective gender-sensitivity in the implementation of national social protection floors. Particular attention should be given to coordination between social protection benefits, public services, employment policies and administrative services. Taking into account gender-specific vulnerabilities and special needs related to local culture and social norms –  ensuring the availability of female medical staff in societies where women's treatment by male doctors presents a social or cultural problem, for example – is paramount. Communication is essential to ensure potential beneficiaries are aware of their rights and entitlements.

Ultimately, due consideration must be given to the differential impact of social protection policies on men and women, boys and girls, and deliberate and appropriate steps taken to address any arising inequalities or imbalances.

Social Protection as a Human Right

The right to social protection which takes into account gender- and age-specific vulnerabilities is enshrined in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 and the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights, 1976.

More specifically addressing discrimination between men and women and promoting gender equality, the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women, 1978,  affirms that states should  "take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of employment in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, the same rights, in particular: (…) The right to social security, particularly in cases of retirement, unemployment, sickness, invalidity and old age and other incapacity to work, as well as the right to paid leave".

The ILO's Mandate and International Standards

In accordance with the aims and purposes set out in the Preamble to its Constitution and in the Declaration of Philadelphia, and as reiterated by ILO tripartite constituents at International Labour Conferences, social security and gender equality occupy a predominant place in the activities of the ILO.

To-date, the ILO has adopted 14 Conventions and 12 Recommendations in the field of social security which define the scope and level of protection that should be afforded. The ILO's mandate to promote gender equality in the world of work is also embodied in numerous international labour standards including four key ILO gender equality Conventions, namely: the Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100)Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111)Workers with Family Responsibilities Convention, 1981 (No. 156) and Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 (No. 183).

The Social Protection Floors Recommendation, 2012 (No. 202) 

Recommendation No. 202 provides guidance for the implementation of a two dimensional national strategy for the extension of social security, where Members should “establish and maintain, as applicable, social protection floors as a fundamental element of their national social security systems; and implement social protection floors within strategies for the extension of social security that progressively ensure higher levels of social security to as many people as possible, guided by ILO social security standards”

With respect to gender issues more specifically, the Recommendation recognises the importance of social security as a tool to prevent and reduce poverty, inequality, social exclusion and social insecurity, and promote equal opportunity and gender equality. Moreover, since women are often among the poorest members of society, are overrepresented in the informal economy and experience social inequalities, the acknowledgment of the role of social inclusion in helping to overcome extreme poverty and reduce social inequalities and the recognition of the need to support the transition from informal to formal employment is of particular significance.

Main Resources

 Social protection floors and gender equality. A brief overview
 ESS 37


Fighting inequality from the basics. The social protection floor and gender equality
ILO, UNDP, UN Women, 2012


Executive Summary in English

Full Report in Spanish

Click here for a full Bibliography of materials related to Gender Equality and National Social Protection Floors.