Gender and social protection: fighting for equality and against poverty


By Liévin Feliho, Chief Executive Officer, SOLIHO; Former Government Commissioner at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health in France  

This blog is part of a special series marking the intersection between
the 2019 Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI),
2019 SIGI Global Report and work on Social Protection


According to the International Labor Organization (ILO)1, only a minority of the world’s inhabitants (45.2%) enjoy at least one social protection benefit today. If this protection amounts to 84.1% in Europe, it is in Africa that the situation is most worrying with only 17.8% of the population covered. It is difficult to have a fair assessment of women’s coverage level since most of the available and disaggregated data only concern benefits provided to mothers with newborns.2 Evidence points to the fact that, regarding social protection also, women are structural victims.

The Protection and Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’) promulgated on March 23, 2010 by President Barack Obama and the 2011 report on the Social Protection Floor for a Fair and Inclusive Globalization by the advisory group chaired by Michelle Bachelet, set by ILO with the collaboration of the WHO, have increased awareness around the concept of social protection. After the economic and financial crisis of 2008, these initiatives allowed policy makers from poor countries to more freely defend the idea of institutional solidarity. Indeed, Africans had prioritised social protection since at least the early 2000s3 but poor governance and the conflicting requirements of donors in budgetary matters have failed to bring to fruition their ambitions in the area of social protection and health. So, what does this specifically mean for African women and social protection? Three considerations follow:

First, in Northern countries just like in Africa, women are exposed to severe vulnerabilities. In rich and poor countries alike, women are more exposed to social evils. In France, for example, beyond the discriminations of daily life, they are more concerned with poverty than men, even when they work (78% of part-time jobs, 70% of fixed-term contracts and interims, higher exposure to recognised occupational diseases with a rise of 155% in women compared to 80% for men between 2000 and 2015.)4 It comes as no surprise that African women, hailing from a poverty-stricken continent, should be even more exposed to multidimensional vulnerability (health, education, presence in employment, etc.). According to the World Bank’s latest report, the Saharan part of Africa alone has 413 million extreme poor5 out of 736 million (that is 56%). The vulnerability of women in Africa is aggravated by the extent of their domestic responsibilities and their low access to high-paying activities and assets (credit, land, high qualifications, etc.).

Second, social protection may be a structural response for gender equality and against poverty.Taking into account the fact that women in France received pensions that were 30% lower than those of men, Socialist President F. Hollande introduced various measures to specifically improve the pensions of people with awkward career profiles. These included many women.

The first challenge was to ensure that women who had low wages and worked part-time could validate four quarters of employment. In fact, three criteria factor into the calculation of the pension level: the average annual salary based on the 25 best working years for employees in the private sector, the liquidation rate (a maximum of 50% for the private sector), and the contribution period, based on the number of validated trimesters (between 166 and 172 quarters depending on the birth year). The validated quarters correspond to pay periods. However, some non-contributory periods may also be validated, particularly in the event of sickness, maternity, compensated unemployment, military service, child rearing, etc. The number of validated quarters is a key element. In fact, when quarters are missing, the retirement liquidation rate is diminished by a negative coefficient called a haircut.

Second, reforms aim to take into better account the impact of maternity on retirement. In fact, the difference in pension levels is mainly due to differences in earnings during working life, part-time work and interruptions due to births. In practice, to better reward part-time or low-paid careers, the “law of 20 January 2014 guaranteeing the future and the fairness of the pension system” has, amongst other things, modified the procedures for validating a quarter. This makes it possible to acquire a quarter with contributions equivalent to 150 hours paid in minimum wage instead of the 200 hours previously used.

With regards to Africa, social protection can also provide positive and corrective mechanisms to better address the constraints on women. The resulting benefits must be universal to be effective and to ensure that they serve women. Universality is essential because it would circumvent social and cultural resistance to women’s autonomy. Finally, such universality could promote the financial inclusion of women and all vulnerable groups.

Third, social protection in Africa should be considered at the level of regional economic communities (RECs) to ensure stable funding and avoid social dumping. In Africa, social protection should be conceived and articulated at the level of Regional Economic Communities (RECs) through the establishment of a Regional Social Protection Floor (RSPF). In practice, the content of the RSPF should be modified by the members of each economic zone. It should, however, systematically prioritise health, education and maternity. Given the extent of unpaid work,6the coverage of disability could be integrated in a second step.

Despite different strategies and priorities, initiatives exist at the regional level. They need to be consolidated. In Southern Africa, for example, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Charter on Fundamental Social Rights provides that Member States create an enabling environment to ensure that every worker in the region has the right to adequate social protection. In addition, the SADC has had a social security code since 2007. It defines social protection as a concept that encompasses all forms of social security. In East Africa, the Common Market Protocol of the East African Community calls for the harmonisation of social policies and the improvement of social protection. In West and Central Africa, the creation of the Inter-African Conference on Social Welfare (CIPRES) since 1993 has aimed at establishing regional control of social welfare organisations with a view to rationalising their operation and establishing common rules.

The creation of a single market now will foster a new environment. Indeed, the agreement on the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) of 21 March 2018 reflects Africans’ desire for deeper integration through the adoption of Agenda 2063. The CFTA objective is to boost intra-African trade and optimise investment in Africa. Such a hypothesis, however, requires creating an environment that will guarantee both African men and women social protection and decent work.

1. World Social Protection Report 2017– 2019

2. According to the World Social Protection Report 2017-2019, the share of mothers with newborns: ratio of women receiving maternity benefits in cash to the number of women giving birth in the same year. 41.1% worldwide, 68.6% in the Americas, 33.4% in the Asia-Pacific region, 81.4% in Europe and 15.8% in Africa.

3. Abuja Declaration (2001); Ouagadougou Action Plan (2004); Yaounde and Livingstone process (2006): “Social Policy Framework for Africa” (2008); African Union Conference of Ministers Responsible for Social Development in Khartoum (2010)

4. Rapport Oxfam France « TRAVAILLER ET ÊTRE PAUVRE : LES FEMMES EN PREMIÈRE LIGNE », décembre 2018

5. people live below the poverty line of $ 1.9/day

6. Barbara Ky « Le travail non rémunéré, enjeu pour le développement », 2019, ISBN : 978-2-343-14685-0

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