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Gender needs to be more than a ‘tick-box’ in social protection programming

Written by Rebecca Holmes


This International Women’s Day, India is on the cusp of an historic event. All eyes are on parliament and the Women’s Reservation Bill – which, if passed, will reserve 33% of the seats in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies for women, on a rotational basis.

India has already set the scene for pioneering progressive legislation, with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act offering 100 days employment to poor rural households every year, and providing equal wages to men and women.

As more low-income countries invest increasingly in social protection schemes, such as cash transfers and public works programmes, there is now a need to find out how the gendered dimensions of poverty and vulnerability are reflected in social protection approaches. How do we put the ‘social’ back into social protection programmes?

Social protection programmes have often targeted women as the main beneficiaries of cash transfer programmes or have included specific quotas for women’s participation in public works programmes. Like India’s proposed Women’s Reservation Bill, a quota ensuring the participation of women is an important first step. But without tackling the root causes of women’s marginalisation and gender inequality, progress towards gender equality will be limited. The targeting of women in social protection programmes is grounded in the idea that their involvement in development leads to more effective programmes and more investment of extra income in family well-being. The impact of gender inequality on the effectiveness of social protection is, however, more complex than suggested by this narrow targeting approach.

In fact, the very risks tackled by social protection programmes are themselves gendered. The risks faced by households – such as gender discrimination, social exclusion, and exploitation – are part and parcel of poverty and vulnerability, but too rarely part and parcel of social protection programming.

At the Overseas Development Institute we have just carried out research in eight countries (Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Peru, and Vietnam), funded by DFID and AusAID, to assess the extent to which gender has been integrated in social protection policy and programming. Our initial findings raise two key points. 

First, some programme features can support women’s empowerment and these good practices should be shared more widely.

Public works programmes in both Ethiopia and India – the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) – reach around 8 million and 40 million households respectively, and they both include important gender-sensitive design features to support women’s participation in economic activities:

  • a quota for women’s participation of at least one-third and a legal provision of equal wages between men and women (India)
  • availability of childcare facilities (India) and alternative support for pregnant and nursing women (Ethiopia)
  • flexible working hours in response to domestic responsibilities (Ethiopia) 
  • the creation of gender-sensitive assets (such as access to water and firewood/fuel) (Ethiopia), and
  • targeted support to female headed households as a result of their  greater time and labour poverty (Ethiopia)

At household level, findings from our study of Peru’s conditional cash transfer programme, Juntos, suggest that directing transfers to mothers has helped to give them more decision making power in the household and gain greater respect from men. We should be cautious, however, before claiming that social protection transfers can change household dynamics by increasing women’s status or decision-making. Other findings from Peru, and also from Ghana’s LEAP programme suggest that this greater power is about more than the actual cash transfers. It is also about programmes to reduce violence against women or raise awareness about women’s rights that are implemented alongside any social protection programmes. In Peru, strong links between social protection programmes and complementary programmes have helped reduce gender-based violence, paving the way for a shift from traditional gender roles to greater equity in the household, particularly among younger couples.

As one man told our researchers:

“Before it was different, there were no training sessions... so when we argued with our wives we even kicked them or punched them. But with Juntos they always tell us we must live in harmony. Before, women were not aware of their rights, even men weren´t, which is why there was violence... now it has diminished, we talk more.”

Second, we found significant challenges in actually delivering gender-sensitive design features.

The challenges that make it harder to achieve gender-equitable results include resource limitations, limited inter-sectoral coordination and prevailing socio-cultural attitudes.

Our research on public works programmes in Ethiopia and India shines a light on important design features that go beyond the mere participation of women. But the full implementation of these features has been problematic. Attitudes on the type of work that is seen as ‘suitable’ for women in public works programmes has meant that women continue to be paid less than men. Women also find it hard to take part in public works programmes without proper child care in place.

The cash transfer programmes in Peru and Ghana also highlight the need for significant training and inter-sectoral coordination. More could be done to maximise the regular contacts between social welfare officers/local implementation officers and local communities on payment days, building community discussions on how to address such issues as gender-based violence, early marriage, the costs of child labour, especially for girls’ human capital development, and gendered forms of social stigma.

So, what needs to happen?

Mechanisms are needed to gather and learn from experience, and translate those lessons into performance indicators that are monitored, with good performance rewarded. Institutionally, links and lesson sharing within and between government- and NGO-implemented programmes need to be promoted. Every opportunity to share and exchange knowledge should be seized between donors and international agencies so that any useful synergies can be pinpointed.

Above all, our research shows that in order for gender inequality to be tackled, it needs effective programme design, implementation and evaluation, and for this to happen, it must be seen as absolutely critical for overall programme effectiveness.