Social safety net interventions affect gender equality, whether they plan to or not. Our recent systematic review of Social Safety Nets and Gender provided evidence that even when programs targeted entire households and were not specifically designed to address gender equality, they nonetheless had outcomes that were different for men and women, boys and girls.  More often than not these effects are context specific and require a deeper understanding of the drivers that determine gender-differentiated behaviors in response to and as a result of social safety nets.

The “inadvertent” gender equality agenda

The goal of social safety net interventions is to reduce current and future poverty and positively affect income and consumption. In addition to these outcomes, impact evaluations have also analyzed and measured impacts on education, health and employment. Typically impacts are measured at the household level without differentiation between household members and their gender. But, whenever evidence was disaggregated by gender – or focused on issues that concerned gender in different ways, such as fertility, domestic violence, and access to resources – it confirmed that men and women respond to and benefit from safety nets in different ways.  We found that who receives the money will have a bearing not just on how it is spent but also possibly on who benefits within the household. Even when a project does not explicitly incorporate gender elements or plans to achieve gender-differentiated effects, outcomes may be quite different for men and women, girls and boys. It would be misleading to assume that a social safety net intervention is “gender-neutral”.

What makes the gender difference in social safety nets?

Opportunities and constraints facing males and females are often distinct and they determine how social safety net transfers are controlled and used. They are influenced by social norms and practices and influence behavioral change and decision-making about resource use, which in turn determines the impact of social safety nets. For example, when promised a conditional cash transfer for enrolling children in school, parents would consider the opportunity cost of a boy or a girl attending school, including:

  • In the short term, as an alternative to schooling, boys earn income through paid work or by contributing to income-earning activities of the household, while for girls the trade-off between school and other activities is unpaid household work or, more often, a reduction in leisure time;
  • Longer term expectations in income-earning potential, and flow-back to the household and value system of the community, is also different for boys and girls. A boy is often expected to earn a living for his family and to support his parents in old age. Girls are often seen as mothers rather than bread-winners and hence investments in their education might not be as valued.

Some messages are clear

Evidence of the positive results of social safety net interventions indicate that women spend cash transfers for the benefit of their children; that the transfers have also been effective in reducing domestic violence; and that conditional cash transfers have had a significant effect on secondary enrollment among girls and boys. But, this evidence is often derived from relatively few impact evaluations. For instance, the findings concerning domestic violence come from evaluation work solely done in Latin America. 

Are we missing universal truths?

It could be a source of frustration that many of the impact evaluations do not come up with clear, universal truths, but rather qualify their findings. I would argue that this is a good thing. It points to another important finding - that the evidence does not support a simple, one-size-fits all answer to gender equality. Does a boost in economic power equate to increased female empowerment? The imprecise answer might be: it depends, largely on context. A cash transfer may have a greater impact on a women’s empowerment in an urban rather than a rural setting. Money earned by a woman through a public works project may increase her self-esteem more than money provided through a cash transfer program. And there are aspects of empowerment that cannot be captured with just quantitative information.

Much more evidence is still needed to better understand the gender-differentiated effects of social safety nets. The existing knowledge, though, underscores the importance of context-specific drivers that need to be taken into account in the design, implementation and monitoring of these interventions to ensure greater impact on gender equality and thereby on the Bank Group’s twin goals of poverty eradication and shared prosperity.


Submitted by Baquer Namazi on Thu, 01/22/2015 - 23:53

This is very useful information, particularly for practitioners. It would be great if you could facilitate link up with underprivileged girls and women, through CSOs with strong linkages with grassroots. Evaluations should bring in perspectives of women at the community level

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