Gender equality and women’s empowerment is not a privilege, it is an antecedent to sustainable economic progress. The term empowerment comes from the word ‘power’, which Naila Kabeer describes as “the ability to make choices” (Kabeer,2005). Gender economic equality demands an egalitarian approach.

Greater social protection initiatives, galvanised to uplift women and keep them from falling into the chasms of poverty and vulnerability, are pre-requisites for any social change. These initiatives are catalysts that challenge broader entrenched gender biases across social organs, be it education, economy, culture, politics, or governance. Social safety nets are an essential instrument in empowering women’s ability to hold an economic, social and decision making role within their household and community.


Social protection and the Constitution of Pakistan  

To socially protect citizens, states are bound by international and national legal instruments. In Pakistan’s case, the Constitution under article 38 calls for ubiquitous economic and social uplifting of nationals through various initiatives. These include access to food, clothing, shelter, education and medical facilities. The state is called upon to act impartiality in its provision of the above, ensuring, among other things, that different genders do not disproportionately enjoy economic growth.  


The Benazir Income Support Programme

One of the programmes designed to raise women’s economic and social position in Pakistan is the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). BISP is the most extensive social safety programme and largest unconditional cash transfer programme operating in South Asia. It was launched in 2008 by the then Government of Pakistan. The programme targets women, issuing unconditional cash transfers of Rs. 1000 on a monthly basis. This amount accounts to a 20% increment for a family living on Rs.5000 per month.

The initial target was to mitigate the effects of inflation on the poorest of the poor. According to the Ministry of Finance, BISP provided financial aid of Rs. 122 billion to more than four million people across the country in 2012 (Nayab and Farooq, 2014). The countrywide programme operates in all provinces, namely Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

When the programme first began, door to door cash delivery was made. New mechanisms were later added to ensure swift, transparent and safe access to cash. The introduction of tech-based cash transfer methods include Benazir Debit Cards (similar in usage to ATM cards), smart cards, and phone to phone banking. To support transfers, cellphones and sims are distributed among the poor (Nayab and Farooq, 2014). 


Initiatives under BISP

Other programmes working under the domain of BISP include:

  • Waseela-e-Haq programme: Rs.300,000 loan can be received to establish a small-scale enterprise.
  • Waseela-e-Rozgar programme: Aims to increase employment by training individuals in vocational skills.
  • Waseela-e-Sehat programme: Provides Rs.100,000 life insurance to the breadwinner of the family.
  • Waseela-e-Taleem: Aims to increase the level of primary education holders (Nayab and Farooq, 2014).   


BISP Impact:

  • Women’s empowerment: To counter the discriminatory treatment of women, which renders them stigmatised, BISP presents a two-pronged strategy. The cash transfers have socio-economic outcomes. According to Oxford Policy Management’s (OPM) BISP Impact Evaluation Report 2016, transfers provide economic relief and fortify women’s position within their community (Memon, 2017).
  • Political participation: The prerequisite to receiving a cash transfer is holding a Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC). Female CNIC card holders significantly increased from 2011 to 2013, which according to a World Bank report, is due to BISP cash transfers (Ambler and Brauw, 2017). This means that these vulnerable women can participate in the political life of the country and affect change.


The BISP Impact Evaluation Survey 2016 finds a great improvement in women’s voting behaviour as they show greater cognisance of politics. In 2011, only 40% of the surveyed women demonstrated voting behaviour. In 2016, the percentage almost doubled to 70% (Memon,2017).

  • Literacy rate and school enrolment: The literacy rate of the female recipients of cash transfer is only 9% and 8% of them have finished primary education. Through the Waseela-e-Taleem initiative, students’ attendance has significantly improved as every child with 70% attendance is given Rs.750 every four months. 1.3 million students are part of the programme and 49% of these children are girls (Wasif, 2017).
  • A platform for change: Under the programme, 55,000 Beneficiary Committees have been established in 32 districts (Memon,2017). These committees are a platform to discuss and deliberate on issues of importance like nutrition, education, family planning, literacy, and women’s empowerment. This platform forms the foundation for new initiatives.
  • Food and nutrition: Due to various cultural practises in Pakistan, females have been perceived less worthy of adequate and healthy nutrition than their male counterparts. One of the effects of cash transfers is a rise in their perceived significance within the household, thereby improving their access to better nutrition (Ambler and Brauw, 2017).
  • Autonomous economic decision-making: Economically, beneficiary women are more independent in their spending, with 76% of recipients attesting to a greater decision-making role. Transfers have brought transformation in the male mind-sets, seeing women as important members of the family who can make significant decisions.
  • Enterprise and economic upliftment: Unpaid work appears to be decreasing as more women partake in small-scale money-making endeavours like sewing clothes.
  • Decline in poverty: A study conducted by OPM showed that BISP positively impacted the poor. The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) fell from 31% to 23% in 2016 (Wasif, 2017). MPI accounts for different types of unfulfilled needs including health and education.


According to the World Bank report, The Impacts of Cash Transfers on Women’s Empowerment: Learning from Pakistan’s BISP Program, a metamorphosis of ideas, values, and women’s perception of themselves, their dignity and rights is taking place. This change is countering the myopic philosophy behind domestic violence and male members’ inclination towards gender based violence. This is the outcome of a decreasing acceptance of violence and aggression towards women. Additionally, male members are showing flexibility in their once rigid behaviours, accepting greater responsibility for doing house chores (Ambler and Brauw, 2017).

  • Freedom of movement: Freedom of mobility is witnessed more as women find greater autonomy in decision-making (Ambler and Brauw, 2017).
  • Rise in savings: A greater regularity of transfers increases family savings (Ambler and Brauw, 2017).



On the whole, the cash transfer to beneficiaries is low. However, without transparent mechanisms devoid of fraud, misappropriation, mismanagement and any other corrupt practises, a social safety programme cannot successfully deliver larger transfers. Political affiliation, fostering an attitude of dependency with no clear exit path, and unconditional cash transfers that do not motivate individuals to invest in their future to secure themselves from possible future risks or shocks, are some challenges that continue to slow progress.

Although transparency is a challenge, on the whole, BISP is performing satisfactorily and has been successful in providing for the largest population ever targeted under a social protection programme in South Asia.



Under the umbrella of its various initiatives, BISP has been fairly successful in countering the extreme vulnerability to poverty faced by poor women in Pakistan. Its initiatives have translated into greater autonomy, enterprise, mobility, education, family savings, nutrition and health, and political participation, as well as decreased domestic violence.

It is the social protection programme with the greatest coverage operating in Pakistan, thereby serving as a bastion of egalitarian practises by seeking to challenge gender inequality by targeting women as recipients of cash transfers.



Ambler, K. and Brauw, A. (2017). The Impacts of Cash Transfers on Women Empowerment: Learning from Pakistan’s BISP Program, World Bank. Accessible:

Cheema, I. et al. (2016). Benazir Income Support Programme: Final Impact Evaluation Report, Oxford Policy Management. Accessible:

Kabeer, N. (2005). Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment: A Critical Analysis of the Third Millennium Development Goal, Gender and Development, 13(1), 13-24. Accessible:

Memon, M. (2017). Empowering women through BISP, Express Tribune. Accessible:

Memon, M. (2017). BISP progress during PML-N’s tenure, The News. Accessible:

Nayab, D. and Farooq, S. (2014). Effectiveness of Cash Transfer Programmes for Household Welfare in Pakistan: The Case of the Benazir Income Support Programme, The Pakistan Development Review, 52:3, pp 145-174. Accessible:

Munir, M. (1975). Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, being a commentary on the Constitution Pakistan, 1973. Lahore: All Pakistan Legal Decisions. Accessible:

Wasif, S. (2017). Impact evaluation: BISP report shows 7% decline in poverty, The Express Tribune. Accessible: shows-7-decline-poverty/


Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
    • Social transfers
      • Cash transfers
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Education
  • Financial education and inclusion
  • Food and nutritional security
  • Gender
  • Poverty reduction
  • Pakistan
  • South Asia
The views presented here are the author's and not's