Women's economic rights at risk at the 58th Commission on the Status of Women | ActionAid UK

Kasia Staszewska

Women’s Rights Policy Adviser

The 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is taking place right now at the United Nations' Headquarters in New York. ActionAid is in attendance, joining women's rights organisations and gender equality advocates from around the world to call upon commission members to make a strong stand for women's economic rights.

Cover of the ActionAid report: Making Care Visible: Women's unpaid care work in Nepal, Nigeria and Kenya
Cover of the ActionAid report: Making Care Visible: Women's unpaid care work in Nepal, Nigeria and Kenya

Despite this call coming as a timely response to the harsh reality of the exploitation of women across the globe, some Member States are trying to water down the wording on the realisation of women’s economic rights — for example women’s rights to work and their rights at work — in the draft CSW document.

The language calling for macro-economic policies, which are to be aligned with the existing human rights standards and obligations, faces similar fierce opposition.

Furthermore, on the premise of not ‘pre-empting’ the new development goals, some Member States refuse even to discuss their government’s responsibility to recognise and redistribute the burden of women’s unpaid care work.

Unless all parties come to an agreement that preserves this critical aspect of women’s rights, the CSW outcome will be disappointing.  Its inclusion is vital to lay the much-needed transformative ground for the forthcoming high-level debates on the New Development Agenda post 2015.

Why is addressing the exploitation of women at work so important?

There is no doubt that on virtually every global measure women are more economically excluded than men. More and more women have entered the labour market in recent decades. This has coincided with high rates of informalisation and deregulation of labour, especially across the Global South. In general women are concentrated in temporary, low paid and insecure employment, lacking benefits such as health coverage, paid leave or the right to collective bargaining.

The International Labour Organization estimates that in 2012, more than half of all employed women worldwide were in informal vulnerable employment, while in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, over 80 per cent of all jobs for women are in the informal sector work.

Invisible workers

Furthermore, women’s paid work is only one part of most women’s total workload, much of which remains invisible in national statistics. Women across the world are disproportionately responsible for unpaid care work which includes cooking, cleaning, taking care of children, the ill and the elderly – work done both at home and in the community.

Such a heavy and unequal unpaid care workload affects women’s enjoyment of their rights to education, decent work, political participation or leisure. 

For countries where data is available, women spend, on average, roughly twice as long than men on domestic work including family care. The disparity is starker in India with women spending six hours and men only 36 minutes.

This work is intensified for women living in contexts of poverty, social exclusion, economic crisis, environmental degradation, natural disasters, and where there is inadequate access to infrastructure and public services.

Women’s work and human rights: where do we stand?

It has been more than 30 years since the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979) obliged States to take all appropriate measures to guarantee women’s equal rights.  These include the right to decent work, job security, equal pay for equal work, social security and safe working conditions.

Furthermore, the recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights positioned unequal distribution of unpaid care as a key human rights issue that keeps women in poverty and stunts progress towards gender equality.

It is thus imperative that this year’s CSW conclusions take no backwards steps. 

Alongside women’s organisations and gender equality advocates, ActionAid calls upon the Member States to agree on conclusions that recognise women’s work in its entirety — from the care of ailing parents, to the long hours on the factory floor – and address the intersecting and structural forms of discrimination that women face in accessing decent work, a living wage, and universal protection, alongside recognising and redistributing their unpaid care work.

Follow Kasia on twitter at @KasiaStasz