Transforming 'work': Linking women's economic empowerment and public services

Preethi Sundaram, Policy Adviser
Advocacy Team
Ethiopia sewing factory

From the IPPF side event, "Transforming ‘work’: Linking Care, Public Services and Women’s Economic Empowerment" at the 61st Commission on the Status of Women.


ActionAid and the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) brought together a panel at the 61st CSW to discuss the interlinkages between gender responsive public services- including sexual and reproductive health services- unpaid care work, and women’s access to decent work.

We heard about IDS’ latest research that examines women’s unpaid care work and the impact of this work on their economic participation. Dora, a young woman from South Africa, spoke about the barriers that she faces in accessing education and employment opportunities; she highlighted issues such as care burdens that limit girls staying in school, a lack of affordable and youth friendly sexual and reproductive health services and lack of affordable transport for young people to travel to clinics. We also heard from Kedibone from the Public Services Union, who spoke of the power of collective organising and bargaining for women’s rights in the workplace.

We need gender responsive public services, such as high quality comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights and affordable childcare services to enable girls to stay in school, to support women to access decent work and to safeguard women’s rights in work. Without access to gender responsive public services, such as essential sexual and reproductive health services including family planning, women cannot choose if and when and how many children to have.

Across cultures and in all economies, women continue to do the lion’s share of unpaid care work and this affects the type of paid work they can access. Unpaid care work restricts women from getting decent work in both the formal economy and the informal economy. The caring women do for their children, elderly, sick relatives, the work they do running of the home also affects their time and creates practical barriers in accessing the critical public services they need.

Women, many of who are poor and marginalized and shoulder the majority of unpaid care work in their communities, mostly take up work in the informal economy which is unregulated. For example, 83% of domestic workers worldwide are women. Work in the informal economy can be more insecure and precarious. It has specific impacts on the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women. For example, a lack of regulations can make women more vulnerable to lower wages, limited access to health care, maternity leave or child care. Women may be more vulnerable to workplace discrimination, including sexual assault and rape.

There are many women in the informal economy who are particularly marginalized. Migrant and immigrant women are often forced into the informal sector as a result of their immigration status where they are less likely to be able to access health care, let alone maternity leave or child care.

Given the fact that women will continue to work in the informal economy, support for care work remains extremely important for women to access decent work. Governments must invest in core public services such as health, education, water and transport to ensure that girls and women have the support and services they need in order to participate across economic life. In addition regulatory frameworks, so policies and practices that support and promote sexual and reproductive health and rights, should meet women where they are-wherever they are.

We must also talk to actors outside of our sector. This includes organizing with trade union movements, harnessing the power of collective bargaining for sexual and reproductive health and rights in the workplace.

We can and must demand our rights.

This involves unionizing workplaces and making sure that union structures and policies address women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights and are included in collective agreements. We see examples of collective organizing for sexual and reproductive health and rights in the workplace across the world. In Lesotho, unions have organized training and workshop for women and low pay, risk of sexual assault, lack of maternity benefits were all issues that were raised. In Kenya, the Kenya Union of Sugar Plantation Agricultural Workers have made recommendations for a union programme that addresses occupational health and safety, maternity protection and the provision of childcare facilities. The South African Clothing and Textiles Workers Union have built partnerships with employers and government to address high risks of HIV and gender-based violence in the workplace through joint union/employer statements and bargaining council agreements.

More than ever, we need cross-movement building. As sexual and reproductive rights advocates, as women’s rights activists, we must start organizing across our sector; across agendas. Agendas that are all interlinked.

The fight for reproductive justice is a long standing one. It is intimately linked to women’s unpaid care work and women’s access to decent work. Our starting point must be there.


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