Lessons from South Africa on why gender matters in social welfare policies

The question of gender equality in social welfare policies is a topic that remains under-developed in social welfare theory and policy thinking in the Global South. This is true even though it is increasingly receiving attention in the North.

Gender equality features in various United Nations platforms of action, including the Millennium Development Goals. But these have been criticised for their narrow focus on health and education outcomes for women and girls while remaining silent on the unpaid care work of women in social and economic development.

The 2015 Sustainable Development Goals do give greater weight to gender equality. But how countries will execute the goals remains a key challenge. The paths of welfare, economic and gender-equality policies seldom cross. This may be because scholars and practitioners come from different disciplines, professions and theoretical perspectives.

This has resulted in the gendered nature of social welfare theories and policies remaining hidden, invisible and taken for granted. This is particularly true in development contexts. It is therefore timely to debate how we might think about a more gender-sensitive and equitable welfare agenda in the South.

The South African case is useful as it is one of the few countries that has explicitly adopted the developmental approach to social welfare. Two issues provide context of how successful, or not, this has been in practice. The first is gender and care in the country’s welfare regime. The second is gender issues in social protection.