There is a major debate about whether and how social protection can empower poor, vulnerable, or socially excluded people, but the evidence base is slim and findings mixed. For example, a cross-country evaluation of graduation programmes’ impact on empowerment found the effects to be mostly inconclusive (Banerjee et al., 2015). Meanwhile, a mixed methods evaluation of a graduation programme in two provinces in Burundi found community engagement increased, with participants indicating they felt a greater sense of respect and ability to participate as a result of the programme (Devereux et al., 2015).
Much of the literature on social protection and empowerment looks at cash transfers, and at the empowerment of women and girls (Bastagli et al, 2016: 213). Indicators of empowerment studied include abuse, decision-making power, and pregnancy, marriage, contraceptive use, and multiple sexual partners. The evidence base is small but growing.
From a review of 31 studies on the impact of cash transfers on empowerment (covering 13 countries and 19 cash transfer programmes), Bastagli et al. (2016: 212) report that cash transfers can reduce physical abuse of women by male partners (six out of eight studies had significant results, all showing a reduction). But for non-physical abuse (emotional abuse or controlling behaviour) of a woman by a male partner the results are mixed (of six studies with significant results, four indicated a decrease and two found an increase).
Other findings were programmes showing positive impacts on increasing women’s decision-making power and some significant results on delaying marriage (with some mixed findings) (ibid.). Bastagli et al. (2016: 212) also report evidence of cash transfers reducing the likelihood of women having multiple sexual partners (but no evidence showing this for men), as well as mostly resulting in increased contraceptive use (with one study reporting mixed findings for men only), and fairly strong evidence of a decreased likelihood of having children. Khan et al. (2016) report mixed findings from a systematic review of cash transfer programme impact on contraception – with a positive impact on contraceptive use in three studies, an increase in childbearing in two studies, and a decrease in fertility outcomes in four studies, but no impact on fertility in three other studies. Khan et al. (2016: 371) conclude the evidence is inconclusive because of ‘the limited number of studies, varying outcome measures and lack of intervention specifically for contraception’.
Evidence reviews conclude that while qualitative evidence tends to find positive impacts on empowerment (through improved decision-making, bargaining power and feelings of independence from partners), quantitative results are more mixed (Buller et al., 2018: 27–28, summarising van den Bold et al, 2013 and Bonilla et al., 2017). Other studies have also raised concerns that conditional cash transfers can ‘can reinforce traditional gender norms, or place additional burdens on women’s time use, further reinforcing gender inequities’ (Buller et al., 2018: 28; see Molyneux, 2008 and Cookson, 2018).
Supply-side factors can limit social protection empowerment outcomes. Cash transfers may be more effective when combined with parallel/complementary initiatives that mitigate, for example, barriers to contraceptive uptake, or barriers to educational outcomes such as low school quality and accessibility constraints (Bastagli et al., 2016: 228). Other research notes that social protection should connect up to infrastructure and public service initiatives, or risk stalling progress on women’s empowerment (Chopra & Ugalde, 2018).
For more on social protection and women and girls, see Women and girls.
Buller, A. M., Peterman, A., Ranganathan, M., Bleile, A., Hidrobo, M., & Heise, L. (2018). A mixed-method review of cash transfers and intimate partner violence in low- and middle-income countries (Innocenti Working Paper 2018-02). Florence: UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti.
See summary in Women and girls – Key texts.
Bastagli, F., Hagen-Zanker, J., Harman, L., Barca, V., Sturge, G., & Schmidt, T. (2016). Cash transfers: What does the evidence say? A rigorous review of programme impact and of the role of design and implementation features. London: ODI.
See summary in Poverty, inequality and vulnerability – Key texts.
Khan, M. E., Hazra, A., Kant, A., & Ali, M. (2016). Conditional and unconditional cash transfers to improve use of contraception in low- and middle-income countries: A systematic review. Studies in Family Planning, 47(4), 371–383.
This review searched scientific and grey literature databases from 1994 to 2016 and includes 11 papers from 10 studies. Key findings include: ‘Cash transfers were used for increasing school attendance or improving health and nutrition, but not directly for contraception.… All studies treated contraceptive use or fertility only as unintended and indirect outcomes’ (p. 371).
Molyneux, M. (2008). Conditional cash transfers: A pathway to women’s empowerment? (Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Working Paper 5). Brighton: IDS.
Are conditional cash transfers really providing long-term empowerment to women? This review of conditional cash transfers, particularly of PROGRESA in Mexico, argues that although these programmes are widely replicated due to their perceived positive impact in reducing poverty, they reinforce asymmetric gender roles. PROGRESA aims to empower women, and women involved in the programmes report that, in general, they experience greater self-esteem, wellbeing and autonomy. However, the programme’s gender bias reinforces the position of women as mothers, tying them more closely to the home.
Chopra, D., with Ugalde, A. (2018). Initiating women’s empowerment; achieving gender equality: Interlinkages amongst social protection, infrastructure and public services. Background paper for UN Women Expert Group Meeting Sixty-third Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW63), 13–15 September 2018, New York.
Combaz, E., & Mcloughlin, C. (2014). Voice, Empowerment and Accountability: Topic Guide. Birmingham: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.
Devereux, S., Roelen, K., Sabates, R., Stoelinga, D., & Dyevre, A. (2015). Final evaluation report: Concern’s Graduation Model Programme in Burundi. IDS, Centre for Social Protection, Laterite, & Concern Worldwide.
Devereux, S., McGregor, J. A., & Sabates-Wheeler, R. (Eds.). (2011). ‘Social protection for social justice’. IDS Bulletin 42(6). Brighton: IDS.
Conference/seminar/webinar: Social protection and the empowerment of rural women in Africa. (2016). FAO & International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG). (1hr:38)
Podcast: #HEARMETOO: UNICEF research on gender-based violence for #16Days of Activism. (2018). Peterman, A., & Palermo, T., The Transfer Project. UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti. (28m:38)