To what extent is social protection programming reinforcing women’s traditional roles and responsibilities, or helping to transform gender relations in economic and social spheres? How can policy and programme design and evaluations better address gender-specific risks and vulnerability? This paper synthesises multi-country research, finding that the integration of gender into social protection approaches has so far been uneven at best. However, all the programmes studied had both intended and unintended effects on women and gender relations. Attention to dynamics within the household can help to maximise positive programme impacts and reduce potentially negative ones. Relatively simple design changes and investment in more strategic implementation practices are needed.
The role of gender in social protection is complex, shaping the types of risks tackled, how they are tackled, public buy-in and programme implementation practices. Men and women are affected differently by the same risks, and also face different types of risk. Economic and social gender-specific vulnerabilities are often multiple and interlinked, resulting in chronic poverty and vulnerability. Traditional systems of social solidarity that have previously mitigated these risks are losing efficacy, and alternative, negative coping strategies are increasing, such as indebtedness or migration.
Women’s economic vulnerabilities include high wage differentials, employment insecurity, mobility constraints, language barriers and complex domestic/income-generation balance challenges. Women often make the greatest sacrifices in quantity and quality of food consumption, and suffer the greatest ill-health. Their social vulnerabilities include time-poverty, lack of decision-making power within the household and voice within the community, limited reproductive health rights, and social exclusion in the event of male abandonment.
Broader policy commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment is not often reflected in social protection objectives. Overall, a comprehensive approach to tackling gender-specific vulnerabilities has been limited. The research found considerable variation in the gender-related design features of social protection programmes, but that all programmes had both intended and unintended effects on women and gender relations at different levels. Findings included the following:
- Individual level: Women experienced increased economic opportunities, enhanced knowledge, skills, confidence, and mobility. However, obstacles to labour market equality remain.
- Household/intra-household level: Increased income/credit access has smoothed income and consumption patterns and increased household expenditure on food, health and education, with positive impacts for children. Little evidence exists of improved household decision-making for women.
- Community level: Women’s informal credit access and social networks have improved due to the added credibility provided by programme participation, but there is no evidence of improvement in women’s voice or representation.
- Institutions often fail to connect social protection design with the growing evidence on gendered poverty and vulnerability. There is also a lack of capacity building for the effective implementation of gender mainstreaming, and a lack of gender-sensitive indicators in monitoring and evaluation.
Gender-sensitive policy and programme design and implementation have the potential to reduce gendered poverty and vulnerability, and to increase the effectiveness of social protection interventions. It is important to:
- Invest in implementation capacity, developing tailored and ongoing capacity building.
- Improve coordination between actors. Forging better links between implementing agencies and women’s government agencies or gender focal points is critical.
- Maximise the potential of the community-programme interface by making better use of local implementation officers.
- Ensure gender-related M&E and learning across government and NGOs.
- Strengthen women’s agency, advocacy and representation through women’s government departments, NGOs and civil society organisations.