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close this bookABC of Women Workers' Rights and Gender Equality (ILO; 2000; 124 pages)
View the documentThe International Labour Organization
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View the documentPreface to the earlier ABC of women workers' rights
View the documentPreface to the new ABC of women workers' rights and gender equality
Open this folder and view contentsIntroduction: Labour standards promoting women workers' rights and gender equality (Ingeborg Heide1)
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View the documentSelection tests and interviews
View the documentSelf-employment
View the documentSexual harassment
View the documentSickness insurance
View the documentSocial security/social protection
View the documentStructural unemployment
View the documentSurvivors' benefit
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View the documentOther ILO publications
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Social security/social protection

Social security can be conventionally defined as: " the protection which society provides for its members against the economic and social distress that otherwise would be caused by the stoppage or substantial reduction of earnings resulting from sickness, maternity, employment injury, unemployment, invalidity, old age and death; the provision of medical care; and the provision of subsidies for families with children".

This concept has been further expanded to encompass a framework of social protection which is "the provision of a generalized basic social support for all citizens, regardless of contribution or employment history". This entails, for instance, income support to individuals on the basis of need rather than acquired rights, and health care for the entire population.

Minimum standards for all workers should be established in the following fields of social security:

• medical care;
• sickness insurance;
• unemployment benefit;
• pensions (old-age benefit);
• employment injury benefit;
• family benefit;
• maternity benefit;
• invalidity benefit;
• survivors' benefit.

Sickness insurance benefits, maternity protection and pensions concern all categories of workers employed in industrial and agricultural jobs, including women wage earners working at home and domestic workers in private households. Social security benefits can be proportional to the beneficiary's earnings or family support commitment, set at uniform rates or linked to the means of the beneficiary concerned. The State has the general responsibility for the payment of the benefits and for the administration of the institution concerned.

The majority of social security systems were originally designed on the basis of the "male breadwinner model". This model was based on the assumption that it is the male as head of the family who earns the living, and the female who is primarily responsible for the unpaid care work. Married women were granted a form of protection derived from that enjoyed by the husband. Their earnings deriving from professional activity were regarded as supplementary. Current legislation still tends to reflect these origins, even if unequal treatment has been eliminated or greatly reduced in most industrialized countries.

The position of women, as well as attitudes towards family structures and roles, no longer corresponds to the traditional model. However, as a prevailing characteristic of many societies, women have no or reduced earnings for a number of years because of the unequal division of responsibilities for childcare and the household. Specifically in order to prevent poverty of widowed women in old age, women's access to and coverage by social security and pension schemes should be revised at the national level. Social security systems can try to:

• compensate for this unequal sharing of domestic tasks (e.g. by pension splitting); and

• encourage more equal sharing (e.g. by providing parental benefits, available to fathers and/or mothers).

At national and international levels, the following areas of concern are at present under discussion in the context of promoting equal treatment for men and women in matters of social security:

• the tailoring of rights to benefits and the "individualization" of such rights;

• equality of treatment as regards retirement age;

• equality of treatment as regards survivors' benefits;

• the division of pension rights in the event of separation; and

• taking into account the situation of parents with family responsibilities for the calculation of or access to benefits.

C. 102: Social Security (Minimum Standards), 1952
C. 156: Workers with Family Responsibilities, 1981
R. 165: Workers with Family Responsibilities, 1981

→ see also Injury benefit, Invalidity benefit, Maternity leave, Maternity protection, Pension (old-age benefit), Occupational segregation and Sickness insurance

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