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Busting the myth that conditional cash transfers are gender-sensitive

A study of the Oportunidades programme in Mexico found an increase of housework and unpaid care work of women and decrease on time dedicated to paid work

Social protection systems are among the key policy instruments that policy-makers have at their disposal to address inequalities and advance social inclusion. Social protection systems have the potential to strengthen gender equality and women’s empowerment. For example, they have played an important role in increasing women’s access to personal income in Latin America, as this figure shows, writes Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona.

Gender-sensitive social protection can strengthen gender equality (mujeres: women, hombres: men, and brecha: the gap) From ECLAC 2016b.

Yet, despite the strong body of evidence and many recommendations (e.g. Sabates-Wheeler and Kabeer, 2003Kabeer, 2008Jones and Holmes, 2011 and Jones and Holmes, 2013), gender inequalities and women’s rights continue to be systematically neglected in the design, implementation and evaluation of some social protection interventions, such as Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) programmes.

Issues with conditions

Even though women are the ones receiving the cash transfers, and the fact that many CCTs aim at fostering the economic inclusion of women, when it comes to gender equality and women’s rights, researchers have strongly criticised these programmes on several grounds.

  1. Due to their ‘maternalistic’ stance, it is considered that the focus on women is not based on recognition of their rights, but rather as an instrument for benefiting their children, conditioned on investment in education, health and nutrition (e.g. ECLAC, 2012 and Cecchini and Madariaga, 2011). Female heads of households are responsible for compliance with the conditionalities. The conditionalities (often called “co-responsibilities”), refer to activities such as taking children for vaccinations and health check-ups, and/or ensuring children’s attendance at school. In most cases, they can be penalised for non-compliance: sanctions range from warnings and temporary loss of benefits to permanent exclusion from programmes.
  2. For increasing unpaid care work for women. For example, a study shows that in Ecuador, due to the conditionalities, poor women who were recipients of CCTs engaged in thirty-seven hours of unpaid care work per week, compared to an average of thirty hours for women living in poverty who were not recipients of the programme. The additional demands on women’s time created by programme requirements have a discriminatory impact on women and on their enjoyment of several rights on an equal basis with men (e.g. right to education and health) and further deprive them of scarce leisure time (Sepúlveda, 2013).
  3. Linked to the previous criticism, it is also considered that the conditionalities of CCTs hinder women’s access to paid employment on an equal footing with men (e.g. Franzoni and Voreend, 2008) and that they do nothing to re-organise gender roles in ways that would reduce or avoid tensions between paid and unpaid work, and in some cases they increase tensions in terms of equality of time use (UN Women, 2014).
  4. For perpetuating negative socio-cultural norms that consider family caregiving to be women’s sole or primary role, effectively relieving men of any responsibility for these tasks. In this regard, CCTs are considered to do little to transform patriarchal power relations, attitudes and stereotypes that cast the man as the family breadwinner, while the woman is left with responsibility for children’s health and education and domestic chores (e.g. Fultz and Francis, 2013 and Molyneux, 2007). In fact, by assuming that women are exclusively responsible for unpaid domestic work, CCTs may be perpetuating these stereotypes.
  5. For the low amount of the transfers, which are insufficient to overcome the economic dependence of women of other members of the household. While the level of transfer varies, in most countries of Latin America, the amounts are below the poverty line (ECLAC, 2015).

Additional concerns about CCTs’ impacts on women’s rights (as well as other non-contributory programmes more generally) relates to the intra-household dynamics: the resources and time allocation processes. When eligibility criteria focus primarily on household units without giving attention to the complex intra-family allocation processes, programmes may have an unintended discriminatory impact on girls and older women. Similar negative impacts might also result from a failure to consider the impact of cash transfers on intra-household time allocation (in activities, such as market work, domestic labour, school, and leisure for children and adults).

A 2015 study of the Colombian CCT program Familias en Accion found that the programme increases the leisure time of boys while reducing their paid work but reduces the leisure time of girls while increasing their domestic labour. As to the impact of the programme on adults’ time use, the study found that the males in the programme increased their paid work at the expense of domestic labour and that females increased their domestic labour at the expense of leisure time (Canavire and Ospina, 2015). Similarly, a study of the CCT programme Oportunidades in Mexico, found an increase of housework and unpaid care work of women, caused by the lower contribution of children in these activities. Moreover, the study showed a statistically significant decrease on time dedicated to paid work, of 2 per cent on average in the case of men and 12 per cent in the case of women (Espejo, 2013, quoted in ECLAC 2016).

Women’s empowerment?

While advocates for CCTs tend to stress their potential contribution to women’s empowerment by providing access to an independent source of income, evidence is not conclusive.

A comparative study on the gender impact of CCTs in Brazil, Chile, India, Mexico and South Africa shows ambiguous results regarding women’s empowerment. Female participants of CCTs reported acquiring greater knowledge, adopting more proactive approaches to problem solving, and improved self-esteem as well as increased leverage in household bargaining. Yet, the issues on which women gain bargaining power at home are limited. As the study stresses, while CCTs give women greater discretion over certain purchases, they can also enable men to share less of their earnings with their spouses, perpetuating existing imbalances.

Similarly, there is little information on the impacts of CCTs on intra-household violence. Evidence from a 2015 evaluation of the Oportunidades programme suggests that in the long-term (i.e. 10 years), women in beneficiary households are as likely as nonbeneficiary women to experience physical or nonphysical abuse. As the authors noted, the findings of this study are in stark contrast to the short-run relationship established in observational and experimental studies that women in beneficiary households are significantly less likely to be victims of physical abuse than non-beneficiary women (Bobonis et al. 2015).

Are CCTs gender-sensitive?

Under the obligations that States have assumed by adopting human rights treaties, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, social protection interventions should strive to disavow any patriarchal biases that negatively impact women’s enjoyment of their rights. To this end, CCTs should be designed, implemented and evaluated from a gender perspective (see e.g. Goldblatt and Lamarche, 2014 and Sepúlveda, 2010, UN report A/65/259). However, this is often not done. For example, an independent evaluation by the World Bank noted that most cash transfers programmes it supports do not take into account the impact of gender differences into their design. Moreover, gender is also often missing from monitoring and evaluating frameworks, except for tracking female beneficiaries (Independent Evaluation Group, 2014).

How to ensure gender-sensitive cash transfers?

The objective should be to build social protection systems that move towards universal and equitable coverage and higher benefit levels. Thus, as a matter of urgency policy-makers should reassess the design and implementation of CCTs to ensure they are gender-responsive. CCTs should take into account the many forms of discrimination that women suffer, ensuring that their concrete needs are addressed at each stage of their lives: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. They should also address the concrete obstacles that prevent men and women from participating in programmes under conditions of equality.

This means, first and foremost, that policy-makers should seriously reconsider the imposition of conditionalities in cash transfers (plus, there is no evidence that conditionalities make a positive difference in outcomes). CCTs design does not recognise that both mothers and fathers have responsibilities as caregivers. On the contrary, CCTs reinforce stereotypes about gender roles. Policy-makers should design cash transfers taking into account the gender patterns with regard to the division of paid work and unpaid household work and care responsibilities. They should also ensure inter-linkages between cash transfers and other policies that contribute to reducing the burden of unpaid care and household work within the family such as quality and accessible childcare facilities.

Moreover, cash transfers programmes should be designed in a manner that seek to mitigate the gender-based asymmetries of power in the decision-making process, both within the household and in the community and ensure that women can participate effectively in the programmes, for example, by setting quotas in their governance structures.

Programmes should mobilise women to organise themselves, using interactions with beneficiaries to address the gender inequalities prevailing in communities. For example, using community meetings to address the question of women’s time constraints and mobilise groups of women around the issue of gender violence. Finally, gender indicators should be included in the monitoring and evaluation of these programmes.

A call for action

On International Women’s Day, many governments, donors and international financial institutions will, once again, refer to their commitment to gender equality and women’s rights. This year, on March 8th we should remind them that they can show they are serious about equality by ensuring a gender-sensitive approach in their social protection interventions and by taking concrete measures to end conditions in cash transfer schemes.

Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona is Senior Research Associate at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights


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