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:
- A stronger engagement of men to strategically target structural gender imbalances, and
- 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.
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