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Implementing Universal Social Protection to Reach Those Furthest Behind: Raising Awareness of Intersectional Discrimination

Posted on 10 December 2018

Universal social protection is an important and instrumental policy measure in support of achieving the 2030 Agenda: Universal social protection can reach to those hitherto excluded by guaranteeing at least a basic level of income security and effective access to health care across the life cycle. Therefore, it is a critical means towards the goal of leaving no one behind, especially for women and girls who face intersectional discrimination and consequently multiple deprivations.





A Comparison between the Rights-Based and Needs-Based Approaches to Social Protection

Social protection is a set of policies, programmes and schemes for each individual to attain and maintain an adequate standard of living and good health throughout their lives. One may consider social protection through either a rights-based or a needs-based lens. A rights-based approach regards social protection as a fundamental human right, not a matter of charity, needs, or generosity. A rights-based approach focuses on human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination, participation, transparency and accountability.[1]

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On the other hand, a needs-based approach targets individuals and groups that are considered most in need according to the standard of living as measured by each national government. A needs-based approach, however, is less effective than that of rights-based in reaching those individuals living in poverty. Because it is difficult to accurately estimate individual or household incomes only based on the measured standard of living. While targeting the poor is often conceptualized as a straightforward process to support those most in need, in practice the process utilized and data collected are rarely reliable. Identifying the poor is a complicated process when detailed income-tax registers are not available or regularly updated.

Moreover, those furthest behind are more frequently excluded from the process and therefore, the incompleteness of needs-based social protection policies reinforces inequality. As a result, a needs-based approach cannot effectively include all individuals who are in need and still be unable to achieve the goal of leaving no one behind.[2] A rights-based approach, on the other hand, suggests that targeting should be used only as a step towards progressively realizing universal social protection.[3]


What is Universal Social Protection?

Universal social protection is the integrated set of policies designed to ensure income security and support to all people across the life cycle – paying particular attention to the poor and individuals and groups in vulnerable and marginalized situations. Well-constructed and well-implemented social protection systems can significantly shape countries, enrich human capital and productivity, eliminate poverty, alleviate inequalities and contribute to establishing social cohesion.[4]


Universal Social Protection and the SDGs

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development underlines the importance of social protection for the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Target 1.3 addresses the considerable potential of social protection in eliminating poverty in all its forms. In this regard, universal social protection also contributes to several other SDGs, including eliminating hunger by promoting food security and access to improved nutrition (SDG 2), facilitating access to quality education (SDG 4), clean water and sanitation (SDG 6), affordable and clean energy (SDG 7) and recognizing and valuing unpaid care and domestic work (SDG 5).[5]


Current State of Universal Social Protection

Since the launch of the global partnership for universal social protection was inaugurated by the Word Bank Group and the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2016, many countries have embarked in expanding social protection coverage and are reporting their progress.[6] Additionally, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) has launched a social protection toolbox that is to enhance the capacity of policy-makers and planners for developing effective and inclusive social protection policies and programmes.[7]

Yet, only 29 per cent of the global population benefit from comprehensive coverage. Even in countries where universal coverage is guaranteed by law, not all segments of the population are reached. This is because there are disadvantaged groups such as children, older persons, persons with disabilities and international migrants that do not systemically benefit from social protection measures in its current forms. These groups of people are unable to access to or benefit from social protection and therefore, poorly-implemented social protection ends up reinforcing inequality and thereby moving further away from the goal of leaving no one behind.[8]


Intersecting Challenges for Women and Girls who are Furthest Behind

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More importantly, there are groups of women and girls who are furthest behind due to intersectional discrimination that entails more than one challenge including gender inequality. Intersectional discrimination is the discrimination that young girls, elderly, disabled and migrant women face because of their particularly vulnerable circumstances engendered by their intersecting identities. Since there is a lack of awareness and statistical data regarding intersectional discrimination, it is also time to discuss it in depth and encourage government policy-makers to invest in statistics that reflects intersectional discrimination.



The Necessity of Universal Social Protection

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Considering the status quo regarding intersectional discrimination, the necessity of implementing universal social protection should be more emphasized. While 68 per cent of the world’s older population received a pension in 2016, significant regional and gender disparities were found. Only 26 per cent of people above retirement age received a pension in Central and Southern Asia, and 23 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa.[9] Moreover, the rate of pension coverage is still lower for women than men in all regions, despite the fact that women tend to live longer. In many cases, women are excluded from educational attainment and labour or political participation. Furthermore, unpaid care work that is mostly performed by women and girls is not recognized as significant proportion of GDP. For women, therefore, such circumstance easily leads to a lack of participation to a contributory pension scheme, which disadvantages them especially when they become old.


Underdeveloped Areas in Social Protection Programmes that Affect Women the Most

Figure 1. Development of social protection programmes anchored in national legislation by policy area, pre-1900 to post-2010 (percentage of countries), Source: ILO, n. d.[10]


Although social protection programmes have been developing and expanding in an increasing number of countries, social protection schemes that cover unemployment, children/family and maternity are still poorly recognized and developed by numerous countries (see Figure 1.). What is worth noting here is that those underrepresented areas in social protection schemes affect women more significantly than men. For instance, social protection schemes for children/family can support women who perform 76.2 per cent of unpaid care work at home by providing early childhood education and care.[11] For a woman who has children, she can have more time for rest, self-development, and other activities by sending her children to school as it reduces her care work. Without such an influential social protection scheme, the status of women remains more disadvantaged and vulnerable than that of men.

Moreover, if intersectional discrimination is taken into account here women who have more than one challenge perhaps have far less benefits from social protection. For this reason, universal social protection that does not distinguish women from men or exclusively consider the amount of contribution to a pension scheme can alleviate intersectional discrimination as well as any kind of discrimination in general.


The Importance of Non-Contributory Pension Schemes

On this matter, non-contributory pension schemes can play a key role in ensuring women’s access to at least a basic pension. Unlike contributory pension schemes that takes into account the monetary contribution of one’s labor participation, typically those in employment, non-contributory pension schemes are tax-financed and offer a minimum income security. Therefore, in the same vein as rights-based approach to social protection non-contributory pension schemes ensure universal coverage for all. Finally, these two approaches combined can realize universal social protection.

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For example, despite having the lowest GDP per capita on the South American continent, the Plurinational State of Bolivia has one of the highest coverage rates in old-age pensions. With the introduction of the non-contributory old‑age pension called Renta Dignidad in 2007, it achieved universal coverage. Renta Dignidad reaches around 91 per cent of the population over the age of 60, providing benefit levels at around US$36 per beneficiary without a contributory pension and around US$29 for recipients of contributory schemes. It has brought about a 14 per cent poverty reduction at the household level and has secured beneficiary incomes and consumption. In households receiving the benefit, child labour has dropped by half and school enrolment has reached close to 100 per cent.[12]

Such a significant outcome from the implementation of non-contributory pension schemes presents potential solutions for intersectional discrimination as well. In many cases, old women lack labor participation due to not only their age and the burden of unpaid care work in the present, but also limited access to education when they were young. And this situation deprives them of acquiring contributory pension schemes. Hence, they end up facing intersectional discrimination caused by a perpetuation of inequality and discrimination against women. Consequently, implementing and emphasizing non-contributory pension schemes as part of universal social protection can alleviate intersectional discrimination. 


Universal Social Protection to Alleviate Intersectional Discrimination

In respect of intersectional discrimination faced by girls, early childhood education can lead to a reduction in child marriage. A number of research institutes including International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) state that the occurrence rate of child or forced marriage is highest among girls with little or no education, and among households with the lowest income levels.[13],[14],[15],[16] A lack of universal social protection for education is not only detrimental for girls, but has wide-ranging consequences for their children and communities.

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In many developing countries, including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Thailand, educating girls who are at risk of early marriage has been a critical solution for increasing the age of marriage.[17] In India and Pakistan, increased school enrollment has likewise been related to a decline in marriage among girls younger than 14.[18]  In addition, providing education as part of universal social protection creates many positive outcomes for economic development and poverty reduction by improving a girl’s income-earning potential and socio-economic status.

Education attainment should be regarded as the very basic human rights to be obtained by each individual regardless of gender, age and socio-economic status. Accordingly, education policies as part of universal social protection, with their goal for equality and inclusion, should enhance the rights of girls, minorities, children with disabilities and other vulnerable/disadvantaged groups.[19]


Intersectional Discrimination Experienced by Women and Girls with Disabilities

As for women with disabilities, the prevalence of disabilities among women is higher than in men. While only 12 per cent of men have a disability, for women it is estimated at 19 per cent.[20] Moreover, evidence from across the world presents that women are more likely to suffer from poverty than men.[21] Thus, when disability intersects with this gender inequality in poverty, intersectional discrimination occurs and the vulnerability of women exacerbates.[22]

Figure 2. Differences in Male and Female Poverty Rates (latest available year), Source: UNESCAP, 2018.[23]


Note: *Thailand’s poverty data for the overall population are not available by sex.


Figure 2. illustrates the differences in male and female poverty rates among people with disabilities and the differences in male and female poverty rates among the overall population. Women and girls with disabilities have limited access to education, employment, proper housing and health care. They also face denial of political, economic and social rights due to tenacious cultural, legal, physical and institutional discrimination.[24] Therefore, ensuring educational attainment, health care and employment by providing universal social protection are fundamental for the empowerment of women and girls with disabilities.[25]

Ultimately, right-based universal social protection is instrumental in reducing intersecting challenges for women and girls who are furthest behind no matter how old they are, where they are from or what disability they have.


11 This blog was contributed by Ahneseu Seo, an intern with ESCAP’s Social Development Division. Views expressed are those of the author(s) and should not necessarily be considered as reflecting the views or carrying the endorsement of the United Nations.




Relevant links





[1]UNESCAP[I]., 2018. “Why We Need Social Protection”, [Online] Available at:

[2]UNESCAP[P]., 2018. “How to Design Inclusive Social Protection Systems”, [Online] Available at:


[4] ILO and Work Bank Group., n.d., “A Shared Mission for Universal Social Protection_Concept Note”, [Online] Available at:

[5]ILO., 2017., “World Social Protection Report 2017–19_Universal social protection to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”, [Online] Available at:

[6] ILO., 2016., “World Bank, ILO Launch Global Partnership for Universal Social Protection”, 19 September, [Online] Available at:

[7] UNESCAP[III]., 2018. “Social Protection Toolbox”, [Online] Available at:

[8] United Nations., 2018., “Promoting Inclusion through Social Protection_Report on the World Social Situation 2018_Executive Summary”, [Online] Available at:

[9] United Nations., 2017. “The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2017”. Sales No. E.17.I.7.

[10] ILO., n.d., “World Social Protection Database; ISSA/SSA, Social Security Programs Throughout the World”, [Online] Available at:

[11] UN Women., 2017. “Spotlight on Sustainable Development Goal 5: Achieve Gender Equality and Empower All Women and Girls”, [Online] Available at:

[12] ILO., 2018. “Social Protection Policy Paper_Social protection for older persons: Policy trends and statistics

2017-19”, [Online] Available at:

[13] International Center for Research on Women., 2006. “Child Marriage and Education”, [Online] Available at:

[14] Nikyèma, T., 2014. “Why is Girls’ Education Key to Ending Child Marriage– Day of The African Child 2014”, GIRLS NOT BRIDES, 16 June, [Online] Available at:

[15]GIRLS NOT BRIDES., 2017. “Child Marriage and Education: An Information Sheet”, [Online] Available at:

[16] The Word Bank., 2017. “Educating Girls, Ending Child Marriage”, 24 August, [Online] Available at:

[17] Mathur, S., Greene, M. and Malhotra, A., 2003. “Too Young to Wed: The lives, Rights and Health of Young Married Girls”, International Center for Research on Women, Washington DC, pp. 1-5.

[18] Hussain, R. and Bittles, A. H., 1999. “Consanguineous Marriage and Differentials in Age at Marriage, Contraceptive Use, and Fertility in Pakistan”, Journal of Biosocial Science, 31(1), pp. 121-38.

[19] UNESCO., 2015. “Asia-Pacific Regional Education for All Report: A Synthesis of the National EFA Reports”, [Online] Available at:

[20] WHO and World Bank., 2011. “World Report on Disability”, Geneva, 28.

[21] Rogan, M., 2014. “Poverty May Have Declined, But Women and Female-Headed Households Still Suffer Most”, [Online] Available at:


[23] UNESCAP[IV]., 2018. “Building Disability‑Inclusive Societies in Asia and the Pacific”, [Online] Available at:

[24] Ashford, L., 2002. “Hidden Suffering: Disabilities from Pregnancy and Childbirth in Less Developed Countries”, Population Reference Bureau.

[25] United Nations., 2017. “Situation of Women and Girls with Disabilities and the Status of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Optional Protocol Thereto”, Report of the Secretary-General.