What do ‘family-friendly policies’ mean in South Asia?


Jennifer Waidler, Bernadette Gutmann, Maha Muna, Zivai Murira, Gwyther Rees and Harriet Torlesse
UNICEF/UNI333180/ Bhardwaj
09 December 2020

For Human Rights Day 2020 the focus is COVID-19 pandemic and the need to ensure that human rights are central to pandemic-recovery efforts. The pandemic has worsened economic conditions and deepened inequalities. Many workers, especially those in the informal economy, face barriers to accessing social benefits and protection of their human rights and women are disproportionately affected. This is often worsened by the high levels of discrimination that women face in the labour market, particularly during pregnancy and when they have small children. These are crucial human rights issues when we consider family-friendly policies aimed at supporting parents and other caregivers to reconcile work and family life.

Labour rights – including the right to social security – are promoted in several international human rights instruments. The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention No. 3 (1919) was the first to recognize maternity, childbirth and childcare as the responsibility of everyone, rather than only women and the households that they live in.[1] More recent maternity conventions have recommended increasing benefits and making coverage universal. These are complemented by the ILO Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy Recommendation, 2015, which recommends that countries extend maternity protection to all workers in the informal economy, and by the ILO Social Protection Floors Recommendation, 2012 which provides guidance for achieving universal coverage of social protection.

UNICEF (2019) has highlighted four aspects of family-friendly policies that can be improved:

  • Paid parental leave, for all parents – mothers and fathers - to care for very young children;
  • Universal access to affordable, accessible and quality childcare;
  • Support for breastfeeding mothers; and
  • Child benefits to an identified caregiver of children.[2] 


Such policies, however, are often linked to employment contracts in the formal sector, excluding large number of families. Universality still has a long way to go. In India and Bangladesh, for instance, 41 and 21 per cent of women with newborns received benefits in 2015, respectively, and data are lacking for the other countries in the region.[3]

There are no data on how many children in the region are covered by child benefits (except for Bangladesh), but a recent report estimates that only 10 per cent of children benefit from most programmes.[4] Given the high levels of poverty and child malnutrition in South Asia, this is an urgent concern.

The current situation for children and their families leads to many questions we should ask:

  • How can we implement the idea of family-friendly policies in a way that is inclusive of all parents?
  • What are the implications in a region where more than 80 per cent of the workforce has no or insecure contracts and where, even if workers have parental rights entitlements, they are not always enforced?
  • How can we take account of particular circumstances in the region such as multi-generation families, large-scale outward migration for work, and large numbers of street and home-based workers?
  • Do we need to rethink the definition of ‘family’ and ‘workplace’?


A new report by UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia (ROSA) and UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti sets out to answer these questions. To be released in early 2021, the report takes a broad approach to ‘family-friendly policies’ by focusing on three areas:

Workplace - defined broadly as the ‘world of work’ (in line with the ILO Convention 190);

Social protection - specifically non-contributory child-sensitive and gender-responsive programmes that directly reach pregnant and lactating women, or children; and

Childcare - covering the provision of formal and informal quality childcare services.

Policies in the workplace currently benefit only the small share of workers with formal contracts, most of them working in the public sector or in private firms with a relatively high number of employees. Improving conditions only for these workers would increase inequalities.

There are also barriers to entering, and remaining in, the workplace especially for women who may face discrimination and violence, both at home and at work. Today is the culmination of 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence, which have increased awareness of the violence experienced by women in these times of financial insecurity. Connections must be made between these issues and the development of family-friendly policies.

Finally, fundamental human rights issues ­- such high levels of maternal and child malnutrition and mortality - remain in many countries. These issues must be met before we can fully achieve family-friendly policies. It is vital that we keep the broader scope of human rights in sight – and look beyond the workplace to promote a balanced, coherent and systematic approach to family-friendly policies.


About the authors:
  • Jennifer Waidler is the Social & Economic Policy Consultant at UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti

  • Bernadette Gutmann is the Corporate Alliance Specialist at UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia

  • Maha Muna is the Regional Gender Adviser at UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia

  • Zivai Murira is the Nutrition Specialist at UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia

  • Gwyther Rees is the Social & Economic Policy Manager at UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti

  • Harriet Torlesse was formerly the Regional Nutrition Adviser at UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia


[1] International Labour Organization and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing, ‘Labour and Human Rights Frameworks Promoting Childcare for All Workers’, ILO and WIEGO Policy Brief No. 2, ILO, Geneva, 2020, .

[2] United Nations Children’s Fund, Family-Friendly Policies: Redesigning the workplace of the future, UNICEF, New York, 2019, .

[3] International Labour Organization, World Social Protection Report 2017–19: Universal social protection policies to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, ILO, Geneva, 29 November 2017, p. 264, .

[4] Arruda, Pedro, et al., Overview of Non-contributory Social Protection Programmes in South Asia from a Child and Equity Perspective, Research Report No. 46, International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth and UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia, Brasilia and Kathmandu, 2020, p. 15, .