Nepal’s social protection system reinforcing inequality: HRW

Published On: February 2, 2023 09:40 AM NPT By: Republica  | @RepublicaNepal

The global human rights watchdog has urged the govt to expand the child grant; include informal workers

KATHMANDU, Feb 1:  The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the newly-elected government of Nepal to prioritize coverage for all children and add coverage for millions of informal-sector workers as it considers changes to the existing system. The global human rights watchdog also said that Nepal’s social protection system fails to effectively protect children from poverty and reinforces inequalities between informal and formal workers.

“Governments have an obligation to protect everyone’s rights to social security and an adequate standard of living. A universal approach to social protection, with benefits available to the entire population, fulfills that requirement, and can strengthen public support for programs, help build a strong social contract, HRW said in its report released globally on Thursday, adding, “Yet, in the past years the government of Nepal has taken steps attempting to target social protection at people in poverty, which can be counterproductive, preventing at-risk households from exercising their right to social security.”

Targeted programs are often too narrow; selection processes are costly, inaccurate, and can be prone to corruption; and many eligible people find it hard to apply or don’t apply due to the stigma, added the report.

“Nepal has made important strides in expanding social protection, but large groups, particularly children and informal workers are being left behind,” a press statement issued by the HRW quoted Lena Simet, senior economic justice researcher at Human Rights Watch, as saying. “Investing in social protection for everyone is crucial to protect people’s rights and to enhance the country’s economic well-being.”

In July 2022, HRW examined the state of the social security system in Nepal, discussing policies with ministries involved in planning reforms as well as a municipal social security office implementing the current policies. The HRW also reviewed household data collected by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); interviewed 18 people about their experiences requesting or receiving social security; and consulted 16 experts, activists, social workers, and nongovernmental groups that work with people in need of assistance.

The shortcomings became particularly visible during the Covid-19 pandemic. Most people interviewed did not receive any form of social protection or relief during Covid-19-related lockdowns, reducing their ability to meet everyday expenses. The lack of resources led people to cut back on food, remove children from school, omit medical procedures, and take on debt, states the report.

Social security is a human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Countries should guarantee protection to everyone, particularly in the event of unemployment, parenting and other caregiving responsibilities, accident, illness, disability, old age, or other life circumstances. The right to social security is also recognized in the Nepali Constitution of 2015.

Most social protection is tied to formal employment, though according to Nepal’s latest labor force survey in 2017/18, 84.6 percent of the total working population and 90.5 percent of women workers are engaged in informal work. This system reinforces inequality as workers in the informal sector are more prone to experiencing poverty as earnings are low, employment is unstable, and labor protections, such as the minimum wage, are not enforced. The absence of social protection further exposes them to the harmful effects of emergencies, social and economic shocks, and unpredictable crises like the Covid-19 pandemic, which left many workers unable to earn an income.

The HRW identified additional barriers that prevent families, informal workers, and other people in Nepal from enjoying their right to social security, contributing to the low social protection coverage rate of just 17 percent.

The provision to tie eligibility for social protection to citizenship, and the stigma associated with making requests for government support have been identified as main barriers to access social security in Nepal.  “An inclusive social protection system is key for any rights-respecting economy and underpins building a strong social contract,” Simet said. “Realizing everyone’s right to social security, not just those in formal employment, is vital. This has never been clearer than in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, where countries with inclusive social security systems were better equipped to cope with the crisis.”

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