Women have traditionally been kept at the forefront of the fight against poverty. Social assistance schemes (SAS) have predominantly targeted women as recipient of benefits, aiming to contribute to gender equality by increasing their empowerment. However, a growing body of research suggests these schemes may have contradictory and collateral disempowering effects, due to an increase in women’s time poverty and the social expectations around the fulfilment of programmes’ conditionalities along with a confinement to traditional caregiving roles. These issues are worsened by cases of discrimination and abuse against women by implementing agents.

There is thus an urgent need for:

  1. A stronger engagement of men to strategically target structural gender imbalances, and
  2. adopting awareness-raising and corrective measures to make SAS implementation more gender-sensitive.

This brief* presents the contrasting effects of SAS on women’s well-being, explores ways to address these potential negative repercussions and support relations that are more gender equitable.


Framing the issue

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reflect the continuing commitment of governments to end poverty in all its forms (SDG1) and achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls (SDG5). In particular, SDG1.3, explicitly aims at the implementation of nationally appropriate social protection (SP) systems (1).

These systems comprehensively integrate social assistance and insurance schemes, as well as labour market interventions (2, 3). Moreover, SDG5.4, which aims to bridge the gap between the sexes, acknowledges the need to recognise and value unpaid and domestic work. This is set to be accomplished through the provision of public services and infrastructure, but also through SP policies in the promotion of shared responsibilities between men and women (4).

The SP field has embraced both lifecycle and rights-based approaches in the provision of basic goods and services; the prevention of shocks and the use of detrimental risk management strategies; the promotion of human capital development; and the transformation of unequal power and social relations (5). Within the broad SP field, SAS revolve around the provision of non-contributory support to the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the population (6).

The primary function of SAS is to protect household consumption and to increase access to basic services. It can also promote human capital development, particularly of children. This is evident in SAS’ conditionalities, requiring children’s regular attendance to school and medical check-ups (7). The most common SAS include conditional and unconditional cash or in-kind transfers, input and consumption subsidies (8)

Evidence shows a growing trend. The World Bank estimates that 97% of countries in Europe, Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa have adopted these schemes lifting 69 million people out of absolute poverty (9). Moreover, in uplifting some 97 million people from the bottom 20% every year (10). However, a systematic review of 149 SAS in 59 countries, found that only two of the interventions addressed unpaid care concerns (11). This is an indication of the secondary role that gender considerations have within many SP systems.


SAS and women’s empowerment: Contrasting evidence

Interventions that target women have often helped to increase their bargaining power in household decision-making processes and promote more balanced gender relations (12). Evidence from Ecuador to Bangladesh and Lesotho suggests that SAS can address women’s exclusion from economic opportunities, lack of access, use and control over resources and the provision of basic social services (13, 14). Furthermore, based on the evidence that women are more likely than men to invest a higher proportion of the resources in benefit of their household members, especially children (15), most programmes channel the resources to them (16).

However, as SAS have shown their potential to challenge societal arrangements through the provision of economic opportunities, they can also reinforce traditional gender roles that perpetuate inequalities (17, 18). Although some studies had showed that SAS have the potential to reduce intimate partner violence (IPV) (19) by reducing intra-household tensions and conflict (20), in certain contexts, research suggests an opposite effect:  domestic and IPV increases due to women’s enhanced agency and control over resources as a result of their participation in SAS (21).

Impact evaluations from Bangladesh and Guatemala have also disputed the empowering effect of SAS, evidencing an increase in women’s time poverty brought about by the effort of complying with programme conditionalities. Moreover, some evidence also points to women’s lack of actual control over benefits, which are often appropriated by their male partners as a result of imbalanced power relations (22, 23).

An explanation to these contrasting effects can be partly found in implementation arrangements and procedures that, in spite of aiming at empowering women, tend to fail in delivering gender equitable results due to entrench gender norms. Norms, that are also reflected in biases expressed by service providers implementing programmes (24). Comparative studies from the Andean region have revealed the mistreatment to which service providers have subjected female beneficiaries in the imposition of extra-official conditionalities (25).


Analysing the evidence and envisaging solutions

In general, SAS have inadequately addressed the strong inter-linkages between gender inequalities and poverty (26, 27). By failing to pay attention to intra-household gender dynamics, in particular the position and engagement of men, programme results have been jeopardized (28, 29). Neglecting the position and engagement of men exacerbates the gendered risks and vulnerabilities faced by both sexes, creating and reinforcing tensions and exclusion (30, 31, 32).

Growing evidence suggests that some of the commonly encountered disempowering effects faced by women in SAS can be prevented and overcome simply by working together with men (33, 34). Pilots and programmatic innovations applying a relational gender approach, that includes both sexes as beneficiaries in SAS, have shown sustained positive effects (35). They have also indicated the need to promote spaces at different societal levels to foster dialogue and the critical consciousness around the norms that govern women and men’s interaction (36).


The implementation of SAS, that promote more gender-equitable outcomes should therefore:

1. Question women’s role as the sole recipients of benefits

The idea that giving economic resources to women instead of men will increase the impact on family well-being is being revisited and contested, suggesting that the impacts of SAS benefits are not necessarily determined by the sex of the main recipient (37, 38). There is a need to question, or at least nuance the assumption that it is always better to make mothers the recipients of benefits. Contextual factors need to be taken into account, devising programmes that promote joint decision-making and the active engagement of men in reproductive activities within the household (39).


2. Translating SAS conditionalities into co-responsibilities is key to involving both sexes

Schemes must be sensitive to the reality of rural women and the particular trade-offs they face when trying to comply with conditionalities (40). Therefore, the need to introduce shared responsibilities between women and men, like in El Salvador (41), to encourage fathers to play an active role in caregiving. Moreover, the provision of childcare services in SAS have the potential to facilitate women and men’s attendance to training sessions and the engagement in remunerated work (42).


3. Tackle discrimination and abuse against women by SAS implementing agents

Several studies have reported dismissive and authoritarian attitudes by local implementing agents reflected in arbitrary interpretation of programme provisions, threatening behaviour, and imposition of informal conditionalities and charges for free services to female beneficiaries (43).

SAS design should include a rigorous monitoring strategy with qualitative indicators on the performance of implementing agents based on beneficiaries’ perceptions, ensuring greater accountability (44). The enactment of a non-discriminatory regulation governing all staff should be considered as an ex ante strategy to limit their discretion.

Additionally, independent and random audits should be commissioned once every year to ensure the effectiveness of the regulation and revision of grievances and complaints (45). Without these strategies in tandem, it is unlikely that the regulation per se will have the sufficient and necessary strength to induce the agents’ compliance, which would need to be accompanied by on the job training and awareness-raising campaigns involving both women and men officers.


4. Put in place strong and effective mechanisms to channel and address beneficiaries’ complaints and grievances

An effective accountability mechanism must have a depersonalised communication channel for female beneficiaries to report obstacles or issues faced, such as intra-household tensions and abuse by service providers. This mechanism enables beneficiaries to exhort their voices and transparently obtain the information needed regarding programme conditions, their rights and entitlements (46). Moreover, they serve as a channel for policy-makers to obtain relevant qualitative information regarding the SAS’ performance.


5. Need for research and evaluation that integrates indicators and assessments on both male and female’s risks and vulnerabilities, as well as how SAS affect their welfare and empowerment 

We cannot assume that only women and not men confront pervasive gender norms and are disempowered. Men need to be engendered to better understand and respond to the risks and vulnerabilities they confront through SAS (47). Therefore, integrating a men and masculinities' lens to gender and development is essential to progress with a transformative SP agenda that as such can result in sustainable poverty reduction and structural change (48). 


* This policy brief is based on a longer piece of research developed by the author in 2017 and the valuable inputs received in two international conferences where its initial findings were presented at the Overseas Development Institute and the Royal Tropical Institute. The original piece, which was published under the title Integrating Men in the Empowerment Process of Women: A Means of Addressing Poverty in Conditional Cash Transfers Schemes, is partly summarised in this brief.



(1) United Nations (UN) (2015a). Sustainable Development Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere. Retrieved from: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg1

(2) United Nations (UN). (2015b). Transforming our world: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development A/RES/70/1. Retrieved from: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/21252030 Agenda for Sustainable Development web.pdf 

(3) International Labour Organization (ILO). (2012). Recommendation R202 – Social Protection Floors Recommendation, 2012 (No. 202). Retrieved from: http://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_ILO_CODE:R202

(4) United Nations (UN) (2015c). Sustainable Development Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Retrieved from https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg5

(5) Devereux, S. and Sabates-Wheeler, R. (2008). Transformative Social Protection: The Currency of Social Justice, In A. Barrientos & D. Hulme (Eds.), Social Protection for the Poor and Poorest: Concepts, Policies and Politics. Basingstoke; New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Accessible: https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230583092

(6) De Neubourg, C., Castonguay, J. and Roelen, K. (2007). Social Safety Nets and Targeted Social Assistance: Lessons from the European Experience. Retrieved from: https://siteresources.worldbank.org/SOCIALPROTECTION/Resources/SPDiscussion-papers/Safety-Nets-DP/0718.pdf

(7) Norton, A., Conway, T. and Foster, M. (2001). Social Protection Concepts and Approaches: Implications for Policy and Practice in International Development, London. Retrieved from: https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odiassets/publications-opinion-files/2999.pdf

(8) Honorati, M., Gentilini, U. and Yemtsov, R. G. (2015). The State of Social Safety Nets 2015. The World Bank. Accessible: https://doi.org/10.1596/978-1-4648-0543

(9) World Bank (WB) (2017). Closing the Gap: The State of Social Safety Nets 2017, Safety Nets where Needs are Greatest, Washington.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Chopra, D., Wanjiku Kelbert, A. and Iyer, P. (2013). A Feminist Political Economy Analysis of Public Policies Related to Care: A Thematic Review, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton. Retrieved from: https://www.ids.ac.uk/publication/a-feminist-political-economy-analysis-ofpublic-policies-related-to-care-a-thematic-review

(12) Cecchini, S. and Madariaga, A. (2011). Conditional Cash Transfer Programmes, Conditional Cash Transfer Programs (Vol. 53), Santiago, Chile: United Nations. Accessible: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004

(13) Kabeer, N. (2008). Mainstreaming gender in social protection for the informal economy, Commonwealth Secretariat. Retrieved from: https://books.thecommonwealth.org/mainstreaming-gender-socialprotection-informal-economy-paperback

(14) DFID and UK AID. (2011). DFID Cash Transfers Evidence Paper, Policy Division Papers, 134.

(15) Browne, E. (2015). Social Protection: Topic guide, Birmingham. Retrieved from http://www.gsdrc.org/docs/open/socialprotection.pdf

(16) Gavrilovic, Jaramillo-Mejia, Kaaria and Winder-Rossi (2018). FAO Technical Guide 1 Introduction to Gender-sensitive Social Protection Programming to Combat Rural Poverty: Why is it Important and What Does It Mean?, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, Rome, Italy.

(17) Veras Soares, F. and Silva, E. (2010). Empowering or Reinforcing Traditional Roles: Can CCTs Address Gender Vulnerabilities?, The International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth, Brasilia. Retrieved from: http://www.ipcundp.org/pub/chi/IPCOnePager115.pdf

(18) Chant, S. and Gutmann, M. C. (2002). “Men-streaming” gender? Questions for gender and development policy in the twenty-first century, Progress in Development Studies, 2(4), 269–282. https://doi.org/10.1191/1464993402ps041ra

(19) Hidrobo, M., Peterman, A. and Heise, L. (2016). The effect of cash, vouchers, and food transfers on intimate partner violence: Evidence from a randomized experiment in Northern Ecuador, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. Accessible: https://doi.org/10.1257/app.20150048

(20) Slater, R. and Mphale, M. (2008). Cash transfers, gender and generational relations: evidence from a pilot project in Lesotho, London. Retrieved from: https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinionfiles/2574.pdf

(21) Angelucci, M. (2008). Love on the Rocks: Domestic Violence and Alcohol Abuse in Rural Mexico, The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, 8(1). Accessible: https://doi.org/10.2202/1935-1682.1766

(22) Roy, S., Ara, J., Das, N. and Quisumbing, A. R. (2015). “Flypaper effects” in transfers targeted to women: Evidence from BRAC’s “Targeting the Ultra Poor” program in Bangladesh, Journal of Development Economics, 117, 1–19. Accessible: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jdeveco.2015.06.004

(23) Gammage, S. (2011). Conditional Cash Transfers and Time Poverty: An example from Guatemala, 1–17.

(24) Cookson, T. (2017). The unseen gender impact of conditionality: extra-official conditions, Brasilia. Retrieved from: http://www.ipcundp.org/pub/eng/OP345_The_unseen_gender_impact_of_conditionality.pdf

(25) Wright, G., Neves, D., Ntshongwana, P. and Noble, M. (2015). Social assistance and dignity: South African women’s experiences of the child support grant, Development Southern Africa, 32(4), 443–457. Accessible: https://doi.org/10.1080/0376835X.2015.1039711

(26) Chant, S. (2010). The International Handbook of Gender and Poverty: Concepts, Research, Policy, Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-84844-33-1, 698 pp.

(27) Holmes, R. and Jones, N. (2010). How to design and implement gender-sensitive social protection programmes, Toolkit ODI at 50: advancing knowledge, shaping policy, inspiring practice. Retrieved from https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinionfiles/6262.pdf

(28) Edström, J., Hassink, A., Shahrokh, T. and Stern, E. (2015). Engendering Men: A Collaborative Review of Evidence on Men and Boys in Social Change and Gender Equality, Brighton.

(29) Quisumbing, A. R. (2010). Gender and household decision-making in developing countries: a review of evidence. In S. Chant (Ed.), The International Handbook of Gender and Poverty: Concepts, Research, Policy (pp. 161–166). Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd.

(30) Hagen-Zanker, J. et al. (2017). The impact of cash transfers on women and girls. A summary of the evidence, Briefing Paper, London, ODI.

(31) IEG (Independent Evaluation Group) (2014). Social safety nets and gender. Learning from impact evaluations and World Bank projects, Washington, DC, World Bank.

(32) Molyneux, M. and Thomson, M. (2012). CCT programmes and women’s empowerment in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, CARE. Available at https:// insights.careinternational.org.uk/publications/cct-programmes-and-womens-empowerment-in-peru-bolivia-and-ecuador

(33) Correia, M. and Bannon, I. (2006). The Other Half of Gender, The Other Half of Gender. Accessible: https://doi.org/10.1596/978-0-8213-6505-2

(34) de Keijzer, B. (2004). Masculinities: Resistance and change, In S. Ruxton (Ed.), Gender equality and men: Learning from practice, Oxfam,GB.

(35) Promundo. (n.d.). Bolsa Família Companion Program - Promundo - EN. Retrieved from: http://promundoglobal.org/programs/bolsa-familiacompanion-program/

(36) Cornwall, A. (2016). Women’s Empowerment: What Works? Journal of International Development, 96(1), 342–359. Accessible: https://doi.org/10.1002/jid

(37) Yoong, J., Rabinovich, L. and Diepeveen, S. (2012). The impact of economic resource transfers to women versus men, London.

(38) de Walque, D. (2016). Should cash transfers be systematically paid to mothers?. Retrieved from: https://blogs.worldbank.org/developmenttalk/should-cash-transfers-besyst... paid-mothers

(39) World Bank (WB) (2016). Evidence from a randomized evaluation of the household welfare impacts of conditional and unconditional cash transfers given to mothers or fathers.

(40) Sabates-Wheeler, R. and Roelen, K. (2011). Transformative social protection programming for children and their careers: a gender perspective, Gender & Development, 19, 179–194. Accessible: https://doi.org/10.1080/13552074.2011.592629

(41) UN Women (2015). Progress of the world’s women 2015-2016, Transforming economies, New York, USA.

(42) Gavrilovic, Jaramillo-Mejia, Kaaria and Winder-Rossi (2018). FAO Technical Guide 2 Integrating Gender into the Design of Cash Transfer and Public Works Programmes, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, Rome, Italy.

(43) Cookson, T. (2018). Unjust Conditions: Women’s Work and the Hidden Cost of Cash Transfer Programs, California: University of California Press.

(44) Jaramillo-Mejia, J.G. (2016). Improving the accountability mechanisms of JUNTOS cash transfer programme to prevent the abuse and Discrimination against its beneficiaries by implementing agents in the field, Policy, Bureacracy and Development Course. LSE, London, UK.

(45) Huber and Shipan (2006). Politics, Delegation and Bureaucracy, Oxford Handbook of Political Economy, Chapter 14

(46)  Gavrilovic, Jaramillo-Mejia, Kaaria and Winder-Rossi (2018). FAO Technical Guide 3 Integrating Gender into Implementation and Monitoring and Evaluation of Cash Transfer and Public Works Programmes, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, Rome, Italy.

(47) Jaramillo Mejia, J.G. (2017). Integrating men in the empowerment process of women: a means of addressing poverty in conditional cash transfer schemes, International Development Department, London School of Economics, UK.

(48) Devereux, S. and McGregor, J. A. (2014). “Transforming Social Protection: Human Wellbeing and Social Justice”, European Journal of Development Research, 26(3), 296–310. Accessible: https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1057/ejdr.2014.4

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
    • Social transfers
      • Cash transfers
      • In kind transfers
Social Protection Building Blocks: 
  • Policy
    • Coverage
  • Programme implementation
    • Benefits payment / delivery
    • Feedback and complaints mechanisms
    • Informations Systems (MIS, Social Registry, Integrated Registry)
  • Programme design
    • Conditionalities
    • Targeting
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Gender
  • Human rights
  • Inequalities
  • Global Development Agenda (SDGs / MDGs)
  • Poverty reduction
  • Global
  • Global
The views presented here are the author's and not socialprotection.org's