Equal Treatment, Social Protection and Income Security for Women

Article excerpt

Ensuring income security is a major function of social protection.' Arguably, that is its defining task. However, the ability of social protection to provide an adequate and reliable source of income for women is problematic partly because of the other functions that, historically, social protection has been required to perform. These include the promotion of specific forms of financial dependency which are rooted in and characteristic of gender and employment relations in the wider society.2 These relations of dependency provide a fragile source of income for women; this fragility is then imported into the social protection systems giving them effect. The insistence on sex- and gender-based equality in the field of social protection can minimize or even eliminate this fragility, depending on how the notion of equality is defined and its purpose construed, and there are many ways of doing this. Which of these definitions dominates legal and political discourse at any one time depends on prevailing views of the proper role of social protection and the appropriateness of the pattern of income provision and dependency to which this role relates. It also crucially depends on the changing nature of cultural and economic practices which ultimately set new limits in this sphere.

This article first explores the links between income security, sources of income support, and definitions of sex and gender equality in social protection. The focus is social protection as provided in developed countries, particularly those of western Europe; reference is made to developing and transition economies where possible. Next, the article identifies the different types of discrimination still to be found in social protection systems, applying the definitions of equality developed in the preceding section. Discriminatory practices are selected for examination from among recent developments in those systems for what they show of shifts towards greater or lesser discrimination. Finally, the article examines the relationship between equal treatment, social protection and income security, concluding with some normative thoughts on which of the various definitions of equal treatment is to be preferred, and with some ideas on how sex and gender equality may be secured in social protection.

Income security and social protection

In everyday terms, the two important aspects to income security are: the amount and adequacy of income; and the regular flow of income. In other words, income security means that there should be a constant flow of income adequate to live on. Probing further, it is clear that both adequacy and reliability are contingent on the source of the income, that there is more than one possible source, and that one source may be more effective than another. In developed, western economies, there are three main sources: sexual relationships between cohabiting married or non-married partners of the opposite sex; social protection systems; and employment and self-employment.4 Income derived from employment may take the form of pay or benefits. Benefits derived from the employment relationship may be regarded both as deferred pay and as a form of social protection.

However, these main income sources are not immutable; nor is the pattern of use made of them by individuals and groups. As the economic activity of married women in most west European states has increased in recent years, so has their reliance on paid employment as an income source. There is, however, one fairly constant feature in the pattern of use. People caring at home for children, the elderly or persons with disabilities (i.e. not as part of a commercial arrangement) are precluded from engaging in paid employment during that period and thus from access to income from this source. Such people, therefore, must look either to their partner or to social protection for material support so long as they are engaged in this activity. However, they are not free to choose in this. …