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World Food Day, 16 October


Women are often targets of social protection programmes, but ... are they targeted for the right reason?

A woman feeds her ducks in Gopalgonj, Bangladesh. (Photo: ©FAO/Munir Uz Zaman)

By Ana Paula de la O Campos

Brazil and Mexico introduced the notion that social cash transfers should explicitly target women, a model of social protection that has since been emulated in several countries.

What is the rationale behind this? Women often bear the bulk of household chores, food preparation and responsibility for taking care of children, the sick and the elderly. Evidence also shows that when women have an income it is more likely to be spent on food and children‘s needs, including education and health care. Therefore, cash placed in their hands would be spent on what is believed to be women’s household priorities - food and nutrition, education and health - which are what the cash transfers intend to support in the first place.

While supporting women’s traditional functions is crucial for household food security and for reducing poverty, is this rationale missing something?

Social protection schemes can also empower women economically. If they do, women can not only make better investments in nutrition, health and education for their families and for themselves, but they can also invest more in their own income generating activities. These impacts can help accelerate poverty reduction. Social protection programmes –including cash transfer programmes (CTs) and public works (PWs) have shown great potential for this.

Impact evaluations of CTs indicate these help promote women's economic advancement in agriculture, such as in Kenya and Malawi where CTs are helping women acquire productive assets such as small livestock. CTs can also improve women’s financial literacy and enhance their access to formal and informal credit and financial services, especially when they receive benefits in regular payments, ideally into individual bank accounts. Evidence from Brazil, Mexico, Kenya and elsewhere show CTs also increase women's decision-making power and control over income, particularly in managing the extra cash. 

Public works (PWs) can also provide an opportunity for women to access wage employment, acquire skills, and expand their social networks while promoting control over their own income. In Rwanda, for example, the Vision 2020 Umurenge Program has increased women’s control over their own incomes and women’s financial inclusion through opening savings and credit cooperatives (SACCO) accounts for all beneficiaries.

Experiences from different social protection programmes also suggest that targeting women does not automatically lead to women’s economic empowerment. It is increasingly obvious that, in addition to effective implementation-  programme provisions and additional complementary services are needed for ensuring that social protection programmes effectively support women in their pathways of overcoming poverty.  

Beyond targeting: gender-sensitive social protection programmes

First of all, social protection can be a key driver for women’s (and men’s) economic empowerment if schemes are adequately targeted and implemented as planned.  This means, for example, programmes reaching those who they intend to protect. It means that cash payments or public works wages delivered on time and in the amounts established by the programme. It also means that the minimum of public works days established by the programme are accessible to all beneficiaries.

In addition, several mechanisms can be incorporated into social protection programmes to make them more gender-sensitive and consequently promote equal benefits and equal access by men and women.  For example, cash transfers could:

-Address mobility and time constraints of women by incorporating innovative payment systems, for example through mobile payment booths

-Provide  capacity development on gender issues, including sharing roles and responsibilities required to meet programme conditions (e.g. child school attendance, health check-ups) in some cash transfer programmes

-Provide legal counselling and support to prevent gender-based violence when cash transfers change gender roles in the household and society

-Establish linkages with complementary services such as education, agricultural extension and rural advisory services, to effectively support the economic advancement of women

-Establish linkages with financial services to promote financial literacy and women’s control over transfers

Public works could:

-Offer gender-differentiated tasks such as employment that requires less physically-demanding tasks or that capitalizes on women’s knowledge and experience.

-Address women’s mobility constraints by locating work sites closer to where beneficiaries live and provide flexible working hours to allow for  household responsibilities

-Provide access to childcare facilities at work sites for infants or at the community level for older children In addition to classic public works (e.g. infrastructure), consider other work options that include social services, such as crèches and community kitchens, that can help reduce local women’s work burden

-Provide skills training and knowledge that enhance women’s employability after the programme ends

Gender-sensitive social protection programmes have a great role to play in accelerating women’s economic empowerment as they not only reduce women’s vulnerabilities, but also provide opportunities to enhance employment status, control incomes, own productive assets, broaden social networks, and raise awareness of rights.

The key challenge for supporters of women’s empowerment is to change the policy and political discourse of social protection, which too often justifies a focus on women due to expected gains in children’s welfare and the potential for breaking the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

I would like to argue – along with other researchers on social protection - that the sustainable reduction of rural poverty will require policy makers to go beyond valuing women’s reproductive and caretaking roles and support women’s productive roles directly.


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