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Annual full-day discussion on the human rights of women: Panel 2: Human rights-based and gender-responsive care and support systems

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DELIVERED BY Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
AT 50th session of the Human Rights Council

Distinguished President, Excellencies, Colleagues and friends,

I am pleased to address you today on a topic that is relevant to all of us.

Throughout the course of our lives, we all need care.

The notion of care encompasses many aspects: it can mean feeding ourselves, paying attention to our health and emotional well-being, or even keeping our homes clean.

We provide care for others. We are cared for by others. And we need to care for ourselves.

Care is fundamental for the full enjoyment of human rights and for a life with dignity, and autonomy.

But too often, care and support systems across many societies are unrecognised, undervalued and dramatically underfunded.

And the result is a flagrant neglect of the human rights that these systems are put in place to protect.

Without affordable and quality pre-primary education and care, children are deprived of the start in life they need to develop their full potential.

Without adequate community support or respite care, people with disabilities or older people may be institutionalised, potentially subject to abuse and a loss of autonomy.

Recipients of care are not only people who society considers more vulnerable. Almost all of us, in our everyday lives, benefit from care services, whether paid or unpaid. Without basic support like someone else to cook a meal or wash clothes, our fundamental right to work can be seriously affected. We may not have time to seek the healthcare we need, to access education, or even to take moments to enjoy our right to rest and leisure.

Today, I reiterate a fact of which we are all aware: the provision of care is a shared responsibility between men and women.

It is also a responsibility of society as a whole.

And yet, in most societies, it is taken for granted that this vital work be provided for free - or at very little cost - by women and girls.

Even if they are in need of care and support themselves.

Even if – across all generations - it implies a major impact on their human rights.

Girls are denied education when they have to care for siblings or their own children in the absence of childcare, and are in turn unable to care for themselves.

Within families, women often take on an unequal share of care responsibility, impeding their access to work and compromising their career development. And with little to no recognition of the economic value of unpaid care, women have reduced pensions, or an unequal share of marital assets if they divorce.

Many older women also actively continue to provide care for their family. And yet, when they themselves need support, such as long-term care, they frequently cannot afford services of their choice, with lifelong gender discrimination often the foundation for lifelong poverty.

And as care workers, women are frequently underpaid, less protected, less trained and less equipped. They face a higher risk of abuse and violence. And the systems they work for often ignore the fact care workers have their own families to look after, too, demanding long hours and offering little social protection.


The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the vulnerability of our care systems and yet, many countries continue to neglect the rights of caregivers and to compromise the provision of quality public care services.

Now is the time to invest in human rights-based and gender-responsive public care and support systems.

This means we need to respect the autonomy of people receiving care and support, including their right to live independently in the community.

We must recognise the value of care work and reflect it in economic policies, including calculation of pension benefits, better working conditions which allow men and women to meet their care responsibilities, and strengthened social services that comply with international human rights standards.

We must reduce the care burden by improving basic infrastructure, such as water, sanitation, housing, transportation and assistive technologies and devices.

We need to redistribute care work, by dismantling gender stereotypes that assign care responsibilities to women and girls only. We must also redistribute care responsibilities and support services among the family, the community and the State.

Last but not least, we cannot build a fair and equal system without the strong and meaningful participation of the women and girls, in all their diversity, who work as caregivers, and of the women and girls who themselves receive or are in need of care and support.

We need to listen to their voices. We need to rebuild the system with them.

I welcome the innovative efforts of some States on this issue. The Global Alliance for Care for example, which emerged from the Generation Equality Forum, is mobilizing States, civil society, the private sector and international organizations to reshape the care agenda.

The UN human rights mechanisms also have a wealth of analysis and guidance on human rights standards which relate to this matter.

The momentum is there to transform our care and support systems, and to advance gender equality at the same time. By consolidating our efforts, I am confident we can work towards protecting everyone’s rights, without leaving anyone behind.

Thank you.