Credits Photo credit: UN Women Indonesia | Ryan Brown
Published on March 7, 2023

Making Social Protection Work For Women: Lessons From UN Joint Action

Social protection can play a key role in advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment, but much of this potential remains unrealized. Across the globe, women continue to face disadvantages with respect to social protection coverage and adequacy, while gender-specific risks and vulnerabilities remain inadequately recognized and addressed in social protection systems, policies, and programmes. The COVID-19 pandemic further underscored these challenges: although women’s jobs and livelihoods were disproportionately impacted by the crisis, response efforts often remained blind to their rights and needs. Indeed, out of over 3,000 social protection and labour market measures adopted in response to the pandemic, only 12 per cent targeted women’s economic security and only 7 per cent provided support for rising unpaid care demands in the face of large-scale and prolonged school and day-care closures. In 2021, almost a third of the world’s women experienced moderate or severe food insecurity.


Photo: UN Women/Deepika Nath
Photo credit: UN Women Tanzania| Deepika Nath


In this world of sky-rocketing risks and vulnerabilities, the need for universal, gender-responsive social protection systems have never been greater. As the midpoint in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is fast approaching, such systems could play an important role in putting the SDGs back on track. In this piece, we will showcase how the joint programmes implemented in Mexico and Bangladesh achieved progress on women’s inclusion into social protection systems and how they promoted their economic inclusion and labour rights.

Mexico: Closing gaps: making social protection work for women in Mexico

The joint programme in Mexico, co-led by UN Women, International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), had two focus areas: increasing coverage for groups of women frequently excluded from social protection; and supporting the establishment of a national care system. In terms of coverage, a simplification of the social security enrolment framework at the national level led to the coverage of 49,161 domestic workers between 2020 and 2022. In the states of Oaxaca and Jalisco, strategies have been implemented to support the formalization of women agricultural workers, expanding their access to social protection, and leading to a 30 per cent increase in the salaries compared to the minimum wage. With the onset of COVID-19, the joint programme provided support to female domestic and temporary agricultural workers by creating a guide on occupational safety and leading communications on COVID-19 prevention in indigenous languages.


UN WOMEN/ Dzilam Méndez
Photo credit: UN WOMEN Mexico | Dzilam Méndez


A particularly innovative and catalytic component of the programme was to establish a national care system as a critical fourth pillar of the social protection system, alongside social insurance, social assistance, and active labour market policies. Accordingly, the programme brought together stakeholders from across sectors, including the National Institute of Women (INMUJERES), the Finance Ministry, the Gender Equality Committee and the Labor and Social Security Committee of the Senate to develop a general law on the national care system and a constitutional reform proposal that would recognize the right to care, both currently pending approval by the Mexican Senate.

The programme supported these important developments through a range of actions: providing technical knowledge about social protection and care in support of legal reform; bolstering evidence on what works via a care services pilot in Iztapalapa municipality; mapping the public and social solutions to care services; capacity building through training almost 2,000 people in social protection issues; and running a communications campaign promoting domestic work as decent work, which reached over 12.5 million views.

Bangladesh: Enhancing social protection for female tea garden workers and their families

In Bangladesh, the joint programme focused on improved social protection for predominantly female tea garden workers in a rural location isolated from the mainland. Tea worker communities experience an estimated 61.4 per cent poverty rate (three times the national rate) and face widespread discrimination in accessing basic social protection coverage. The joint programme took a dual approach of building capacity for improved access to health care and social services while also raising community awareness of rights among tea workers and supporting them to self-organize.


Photo credit: Tanjim Ferdous
Photo credit: UN Bangladesh | Tanjim Ferdous


Regarding improved access to health care, the joint programme carried out a range of actions with a focus on sexual and reproductive health and rights. As a result, 14 health centres in tea gardens have built labour rooms or wards and improved their provision of quality health services for pregnant and lactating tea workers. These facilities are now connected with government health facilities for specialist care via referral systems that are expected to reduce maternal and neonatal mortality, including child mortality due to malnutrition. During the COVID-19 lockdown, the joint programme adapted interventions, including by promoting COVID-19-friendly sexual and reproductive health services on billboards.

Bolstering the agency, participation and leadership of female tea workers was a key enabler for the outcomes above, which the joint programme achieved by providing training, education, and opportunities for advocacy. In total, 625 women and adolescent girls were trained on topics including management and negotiation strategies, knowledge of their rights, as well as available services; and 2,119 tea garden workers were provided information on social protection programmes and how to access them. A monthly ‘gender talk’ series at 25 tea gardens provided space for discussions on gender-based violence, child marriage prevention, and the importance of girls’ education. As a result, 264 cases of gender-based violence (GBV) were identified and survivors were provided with support. To improve the receptivity of employers as duty bearers, the joint programme ran training for 100 tea garden managers on national labour laws, gender equality and their responsibility to ensure decent working conditions. Consequently, 60 per cent of 397 issues identified by workers were addressed by the garden authority and local government, including installing toilets in tea gardens, and constructing roads.

UN Joint Action through Joint Programmes

As a global pooled funding mechanism set up as part of the reform of the United Nations Development System, the UN Joint SDG Fund is tasked with accelerating progress towards the SDGs through the leadership of UN Resident Coordinators and a “new generation” of UN Country Teams. To date, the Fund has approved US$ 240 million across 118 UN country teams with 27 UN entities. As presented in the report on UN collaboration on social protection (May 2022) produced by ILO, FAO and UNICEF, the lessons learned are informing current and upcoming work of joint programmes. Funding for Joint Programmes creates incentives and institutionalizes structures facilitating collaboration among UN agencies; implementing partners develop understanding of each other’s work and comparative advantage which in turn facilitates the identification of common ground for future joint work. As a result, national counterparts are more satisfied with the support they receive.

For the current and upcoming joint programmes, gender experts will continue to inform the selection process of joint programmes to ensure that gender transformative outcomes are reflected in all elements of the work, including budgets, activities, and partnerships.