By Alexandre Kolev, Head of the Social Cohesion Unit, OECD Development Centre
Many very relevant things have been said about the adverse impact of gender-blind social protection systems on gender equality. Yet, at a time when many countries are embracing universal social protection, more clarity is needed on who amongst potential beneficiaries are most at risk of falling into the gender inequality trap. In the absence of gender-sensitive social protection reforms, my take is that the risk may fall disproportionately on those who may not be eligible for social assistance and who rely exclusively on social insurance systems. Indeed, gender-blind social insurance creates enormous space for perpetuating gender inequality.
Understanding why begins with recalling that social protection typically encompasses both social insurance and social assistance.
On the one hand, social assistance programmes are not conditional on previous payments of contributions. They are usually financed through general taxation and external resources. In developing countries, social assistance schemes have witnessed the most rapid growth amongst social protection programmes. By and large, social assistance, including cash transfers and benefits related to maternity and children, and social pensions have been instrumental in addressing gender-specific constraints in the labour market and society in general, increasing women’s income security and labour force participation. Yet, some specific forms of social assistance schemes are not free from criticism. Shahra Razavi rightly blames the paternalistic conditionalities often attached to cash transfer schemes for not acknowledging women as workers but instead reinforcing their traditional role as caregivers. Conditional cash transfers can also increase the opportunity costs for women to participate in the labour market by exposing them to greater insecurity if they have to travel long distances to reach collection points or health facilities. Still, I think it is fair to say that gains for women from expanding social assistance outweigh the costs.
On the other hand, social insurance refers to programmes governments mandate or carry out to protect against various insurable economic risks. Earmarked contributions paid generally by employees and employers, and in some cases by self-employed workers, based on earnings and contributory histories, finance the expense. In developing countries, such schemes struggle to gain traction due to the large size of the informal economy and the high rate of contribution evasion. Today, however, many governments in the Global South consider the expansion of contributory systems a priority. Often, this reflects a combination of fiscal considerations, especially in the face of ageing societies and the willingness to increase social protection coverage beyond social assistance recipients to cover the “missing middle.”
Whatever the reasons, one thing is certain: gender issues are especially critical when it comes to contributory schemes. So, it is unfortunate that such issues still receive only limited attention in social insurance reforms in developing countries. Existing systems often assume full-time employment without interruption in a person’s working life, but women often experience more frequent interruptions in employment, longer periods devoted to caring for others, lower labour market participation, more part-time work, greater exposure to informal work in its most vulnerable forms, and lower earnings. Gaelle Ferrant and Caroline Tassot largely attribute such vulnerabilities and barriers to the persistence of deeply rooted gender discriminatory social institutions. These negatively affect women’s capacity to accumulate savings and social security contributions, ultimately disadvantaging them when it comes to effective social insurance coverage and benefits.
The opportunity to counter gender inequality with social insurance systems is real, however. Contributory social insurance programmes are indeed an important protection for women against social risks related to unemployment, old age, maternity and ill health. One approach for fostering gender equality in social insurance has been extending such insurance amongst women. In some countries, including Brazil, Mongolia and South Africa, the inclusion of maternity provisions for domestic workers has been instrumental in increasing coverage for many women working in the informal economy. Another approach, very much in line with what Liévin Feliho describes, provides corrective mechanisms in social insurance formulas so that gender gaps in earnings and contributory histories are no longer mechanically reflected in the level of benefits. Recent policy experiences show that compensating invisible unpaid work and low-paid work that disproportionately affect women is not only desirable but also feasible. Chile, for instance, introduced a 2008 pension reform to close the gender gap for women through top-ups for workers with low contributions and the introduction of childcare credits.
Lessons from country experiences thus show that expanding social insurance can be an important avenue for women’s economic empowerment and gender equality. Yet, without gender-sensitive corrective measures in social insurance schemes, universal social protection risks unintentionally becoming, at least for those not covered by social assistance, one of the main vehicles for transmitting gender inequality from market incomes to social transfers. If we want to avoid the gender inequality trap in universal social protection, then the time is now to understand these risks and break these links. That is why the OECD Development Centre is collaborating with countries in reviewing their social protection systems to promote fair and equal outcomes at all stages of the lifecycle for both women and men.