Social Protection that Empowers Women

Across the ASEAN, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted women, in all spheres from health to social protection, while setting back economic development efforts in the region. Ensuing lockdowns and restrictions to mobility resulted in an increase in incidences of violence against women and reduced their access to reproductive health services. Women’s domestic and care work responsibilities multiplied while they lost jobs and income, resulting in indebtedness and increased risk of human trafficking. The current crisis underscores an urgent need for a collective response and recovery plan from the ASEAN, which includes meaningful and lasting solutions aimed at protecting and empowering women and girls at home and in the workplace.

Oxfam believes social protection is one of the most powerful tools for governments to reduce inequality, vulnerability, poverty and need, especially for women. However, for social protection to make a meaningful difference, it needs to be adequately financed and geared towards enabling gender equality and women’s empowerment, particularly in times of crises. Oxfam through its Regional Social Protection Program aims to promote decent work and sustainable, equitable and inclusive development across the ASEAN, support informal workers and enable their participation in crafting policies that ensure equitable access to social protection systems.

Enabling social protection in Southeast Asia has been a sustained effort by the ASEAN, but still much remains to be done. This is indicated in the 2020 ESCAP & ILO report which states that less than half of the population in the Asia Pacific region is protected by at least one social protection scheme, with women being particularly disadvantaged. What can be the main reasons for this and how does it affect women in the ASEAN?

These questions were discussed at the ASEAN Regional Forum on Social Protection that Empowers Women that took place 29-30 June virtually. The forum was convened by Oxfam with the support from the Belgian Government to ensure social protection for women remains at the heart of ASEAN’s pandemic response and recovery. The forum brought together more than 574 stakeholders from across the region to exchange ideas and make recommendations for strengthening social protection policies and mechanisms to promote women’s empowerment and protection.

During the first day's session, panellists discussed how social protection can empower women, how social protection systems can be more gender transformative and gender aware, and perspectives on how social protection can advance gender equality and address women’s needs, especially with post Covid-19 recovery. Participants also learned from Mongolia's initiative in providing maternity protection to informal workers – a remarkable achievement in the region.

The day's second session focussed on the role played by UCDW in causing women’s economic and health vulnerability and as a factor of social exclusion, and ways to address UCDW via social protection. The session presented findings from Oxfam's soon-to-be-published study on addressing unpaid care and domestic work (UCDW) via social protection. Participants also learned from Argentina's inclusion of a gender lens in its COVID-19 policy response to strengthen its actions towards a more caring society and address women's high UCDW.

The final session, on the forum's second day, looked at financing methods (through government revenues and/or contributions) and investment scenarios for social protection schemes aimed at responding to women’s needs, and their advantages and challenges. The session aimed to also share best practices in creating fiscal space for social protection that invest in a care economy as an opportunity to ‘build forward better’ through sustained care systems. Participants also learned from the Philippines Municipality of Salcedo which implemented a care ordinance for women's economic empowerment. This initiative was greatly applauded.

Oxfam hopes that the forum provided participants proof that social protection schemes developed with a gender lens are key in reducing the vulnerabilities that women face during their life cycle and demonstrated that for social protection to make a meaningful difference it needs to go beyond providing social safety nets, cash transfers or measures directed solely towards women. As demonstrated by the case studies of Mongolia, Argentina and the Philippines, implementing gender transformative social protection schemes are possible even with a small budget.

Resources shared during the forum are listed below:

Here is Session A's panel discussion on 'Why we need social protection systems that empower women'. More forum's recording are available on Oxfam in Cambodia's YouTube channel.