Women often need social protection as they are disproportionately vulnerable due to lack of capital, high wage differentials and gendered work norms, bearing the responsibility for childcare, and exclusion from basic services. Women’s poverty increases during reproductive years when they have children and take up socially assigned care and domestic responsibilities (World Bank, 2018a: 6).
However, women tend to be excluded from social protection. To meet their domestic responsibilities, women either stop work or work part time in insecure, lower paid, informal, and often ‘invisible’, sectors (Ulrichs, 2016). This limits their access to contributory social protection (as they are less able to pay into these schemes and/or meet conditions such as salary, working hours and years), leaving them with access (at best) to less adequate non-contributory schemes such as social assistance. The ILO (2017: xxxi) reports that globally ‘only 41.1 per cent of mothers with newborns receive a maternity benefit, while 83 million new mothers remain uncovered’. This masks large regional differences; for example, only 15.8% of mothers with newborns receive a maternity benefit in Africa (ibid.: 27).
There is growing policy commitment to ensuring social protection has a positive impact on gender equality. This is reflected in growing attention to a wider range of outcomes beyond immediate programme objectives related to poverty, food security and human development, including intra-household gender dynamics and, more recently, women’s experience of intimate partner violence (Buller et al., 2018: 3). In 2018, the 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) discussed social protection for the first time, with the priority theme of Social protection systems, public services and sustainable infrastructure for the empowerment of women and girls. The negotiated outcome includes progressive language on social protection.
The evidence shows that social protection can support improved gender equality. Programmes have positively impacted women and children’s health, girls’ education, and women’s knowledge levels and empowerment within the household and community. Outcomes include reduced violence against women including reduced intimate partner violence, employment and livelihoods impacts and productive inclusion, as well as positive impacts on child marriage and safe adolescent transitions (increased age of sexual debut, reduced number of sexual partners, HIV infections, etc.).
The global review of cash transfers from 2000 to 2015 found that interventions have a particularly positive impact on education and employment of women and girls (Hagen-Zanker et al., 2017, summarising findings from Bastagli et al., 2016). In general, women and girls benefit more from transfers than men and boys (Hagen-Zanker et al., 2017). The review highlighted that a ‘small evidence base suggests that the impacts of cash transfers are not necessarily determined by the sex of the main recipient’ (ibid.).
On empowerment, the review found that cash transfers can increase women’s decision-making power and choices, including those on marriage and fertility, and reduce physical abuse by male partners (Bastagli et al., 2016.). Three potential pathways for cash transfers’ impact on intimate partner violence are on economic security and emotional wellbeing, intra-household conflict, and women’s empowerment. A recent review found that while the economic security and wellbeing pathway decreases intimate partner violence, the other two pathways have ‘ambiguous effects depending on program design features and behavioural responses to program components’ (Buller et al., 2018: 2). The study concludes that ‘program framing and complementary activities, including those with the ability to shift intra-household power relations[,] are likely to be important design features to maximize the impact of cash transfers for reducing IPV [intimate partner violence], and mitigating potential adverse impacts’ (ibid.). For more on social protection and women’s empowerment, see Empowerment.
Other research has highlighted mixed findings and some questions over the sustainability of impacts of cash transfers on various indicators of gender equality. Baird et al. (2016), using experimental control groups, assessed the relative effects of CCT and UCT programmes targeted to adolescents for two years. They found two years after the programme ‘significant declines in HIV prevalence, teen pregnancy, and early marriage’ among unconditional cash transfer beneficiaries ‘evaporated quickly’ (ibid.). However, ‘children born to unconditional cash transfer beneficiaries during the program had significantly higher height-for-age z-scores at follow-up’ (ibid.). Looking at the effects of the conditional cash transfer programme, they found that conditional transfers offered to out-of-school girls ‘produced a large increase in educational attainment and a sustained reduction in the total number of births’, but ‘no gains in health, labour market outcomes, or empowerment’ (ibid.).
Turning to crisis contexts, women are disproportionately affected by crisis and often play a role in filling gaps in service delivery during crisis. However, there is limited evidence on cash transfers and gender outcomes in crisis contexts, an under-researched area. A review of the evidence cites emerging mixed findings of cash relieving household tensions in humanitarian contexts and improving women’s decision-making while also risking additional burdens being imposed on women and reinforcing gender stereotypes (Simon, 2018).
Research highlights that conditional cash transfers relying on female recipients tend to reinforce and draw on ‘traditional’ values which assume women’s role as primary caregivers in families. This only empowers women as mothers and carers, not as individuals (Molyneux, 2008). Beneficiary women cannot always increase their control over household income, while conditions and other changes may increase their domestic workload and time burden (Holmes & Jones, 2010). Hagan-Zanker et al. (2017: 2, 5) found cash transfers sometimes increased how long women spent on domestic work, alongside younger girls spending less time as they attended school more regularly. Critical feminist analysis is sceptical of the capacity of conditional cash transfers to transform the root causes of women’s poverty and subordinate social status, while qualitative research among women conditional cash transfer recipients in Uruguay, Nicaragua, Mexico and Peru studies have shown how programmes generate an undue burden on women’s time (Cookson, 2018: 5, 8). Also discussed in Empowerment.
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 Papers 2018-02). Florence: UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti.
This mixed methods review of studies in low- and middle-income countries explores the causal link between cash transfers and intimate partner violence. It proposes three pathways through which cash transfers could impact intimate partner violence: (1) economic security and emotional wellbeing, (2) intra-household conflict, and (3) women’s empowerment.
Hagen-Zanker, J., Pellerano, L., Bastagli, F., Harman, L., Barca, V., Schmidt, T., & Laing, C. (2017). The impact of cash transfers on women and girls: A summary of the evidence. London: ODI.
This paper summarises the findings on impacts on women and girls from the Bastagli et al. (2016) cash transfer review (see summary in Poverty, inequality and vulnerability – Key texts).
World Bank Independent Evaluation Group. (2014). Social safety nets and gender learning from impact evaluations and World Bank projects. Washington, DC: World Bank.
A systematic review of evidence on social safety nets and gender from impact evaluations and World Bank Group’s projects. It analyses the evidence on increasing women’s bargaining power and decision-making, improving education outcomes of boys and girls, and promoting maternal and child health.
Holmes, R., & Jones, N. (2010). Rethinking social protection using a gender lens (Working Paper 320). London: ODI.
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? This paper synthesises multi-country research, finding that the integration of gender into social protection approaches has so far been uneven at best. 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. 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.
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.
Cookson, T. P. (2018). Unjust conditions: Women’s work and the hidden cost of cash transfer programs. Oakland: University of California Press.
Iyahen, I. (2018). Making social protection gender-responsive. Lessons from UN Women’s work in the Eastern Caribbean. New York: UN Women.
Baird, S., McIntosh, C., & Özler, B. (2016). When the money runs out: Do cash transfers have sustained effects on human capital accumulation? (Policy Research Working Paper 7901). Washington, DC: World Bank.
Ulrichs, M. (2016). Informality, women and social protection: Identifying barriers to provide effective coverage (Working Paper 43). London: ODI.
Key resource: Online community – Gender-sensitive social protection on socialprotection.org. Chaired by International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG) and FAO. Webinars and other resources available to members.
Conference/seminar/webinar: Social protection and gender equality webinar series funded by UKAid and convened by ODI, organised around the sixty-third session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW63), New York, March 2019.
- Realising rights: How can gender social protection advance gender equality? On the different approaches to advancing gender equality with a focus on women in the labour market and social protection for unpaid care work. (1hr:01:10)
- The politics of gender-responsive social protection. (1hr:16:25)
- Financing gender responsive social protection. (1hr:21:55)