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No gender equality without quality public services

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Confronted with fiscal deficits, many countries all over the world have embraced austerity measures, giving a growing number of citizens the feeling that they are being left behind and provoking a crisis of representation and legitimacy.

Demanding budget cuts, which in practice have a direct impact on public services, is not only the bedrock of populism, authoritarianism or social unrest. It is also a frontal attack on women’s rights, since women tend to be more dependent on public social services, which have the capacity to shift the burden of unpaid care to fall disproportionately on their shoulders. Cleaning, cooking and looking after dependent family members — children, elderly people and people with disabilities — are still “women’s affairs.” Across South Asia, women report doing more unpaid care and domestic work than men — 10 times as much in Pakistan; almost seven times more in India and nearly three times more in Bangladesh.

Women and girls are also the most impacted when countries offer poor basic facilities, especially in developing countries. According to a report from UNICEF and the World Health Organization, 2.1 billion people around the world have to fight daily for access to clean, safe water. The task of providing water for households falls disproportionately on women and girls, especially in rural areas. In Laos, for example, women comprise 83.4 percent of those that fetch water for the 48.5 percent of households that lack access to this resource. This disproportionate situation means women have fewer opportunities for education, training and work, making their economic empowerment very difficult.

Even when women manage to find work, they are often trapped in low-paying, poor-quality jobs, frequently in the informal sector. Many of them lack social labor protection and decent working conditions, with consequences for current and future income such as pensions, adding to the already unacceptable 33 percent gender pay gap in South Asia.

Women are less likely to receive a pension, and where they do, their benefits are usually lower. In Bangladesh, for example, the old age allowance offers benefits of around $3 per month — corresponding to those living 22 percent below the poverty line.

Women’s access to social protection, gender responsive quality public services and infrastructure is now a priority of the international community. It is actually the main topic of the United Nations 2019 Commission on the Status of Women that is taking place in New York from 11 to 22 March. Its conclusions will define the gender equality policies that countries aim to implement in the years to come.

Nearly 200 trade union men and women from around the world will be attending as part of a global union delegation that is taking an active part in the proceedings. The delegation welcomes many aspects of the report prepared by the UN Secretary-General ahead of the meeting, especially because of its emphasis on a universal and rights-based approach.

However, at Public Services International, an international trade union federation dedicated to promoting quality public services and part of the global union delegation, we jointly call on governments to translate these principles into concrete strategies and policies to eliminate gender inequalities.

It is urgent to reform the global international fiscal system to put an end to all tax avoidance mechanisms. When corporations do not pay their fair share of taxes, there is less money to invest in public services, sustainable infrastructure and social protection, which are the key drivers of gender equality. Annual tax revenue lost by developing countries due to trade mispricing alone is estimated at between $98 billion and $106 billion, nearly $20 billion more than the annual capital costs needed to achieve universal water and sanitation coverage.
We also want to highlight the essential and primary role of states as the guarantors of the human rights of all women and girls. Whenever private companies have wanted to take over basic public services and infrastructure, such as water and sanitation or health and education facilities, this has always resulted in a deterioration in quality, especially for the most vulnerable. A human rights-based approach cannot be guaranteed within a for-profit system.

In these troubled times when xenophobia is exploited by many unscrupulous political leaders, we also call on the representatives to commit to policies addressed to all women, including women migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. It is especially worrying that some European countries are trying to limit the access of migrants to welfare benefits.

Without voluntary policies such as these, it will be impossible for most of the countries to meet their renewed commitment to gender equality and human rights through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Women will still struggle to remain in the labor market and fail to secure social protection entitlements through employment. They will not find time for rest, leisure or political participation either. Universal, rights-based quality public services are a feminist issue.

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