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Grasping a more equal future — understanding age and gender in social protection


Our guest blogger, Dr. Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed, is a Gender and Development Manager (Research) for the Gender-Responsive and Age-Sensitive Social Protection (GRASSP) research programme at UNICEF Office of Research—Innocenti. Zahrah works in the area of gender and women’s economic empowerment, the care economy, and social protection. 

As we hurtle towards the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals deadline, governments are accelerating investments in both social protection and gender equality. This presents an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of how social protection can not only reduce povertybut also contribute to gender equalityGender equality is vital to achieve sustainable poverty reduction through social protection. In turn, poverty reduction, for instance, through greater income equality and security provided through well-designed social protection promotes gender equality.  

Social protection, particularly in the form of cash benefits, has already proven its ability to address multi-dimensional and intergenerational poverty for women and girls in different contexts, including increasing women’s savings and investments in productive assets or improving girls’ school enrolment and attendance. Yet, this potential can also be belied if programmes are poorly designed or executed, resulting in further entrenching prevailing gender inequalities. More needs to be done to understand how and why programme design and implementation can either strengthen or worsen impacts for women and girls.  

Women and girls face many heightened barriers throughout their lives, including limited access to essential services; unequal access to and ownership of assets; and limited economic, social, and political opportunities. Moreover, women face distinct risks in different stages of their lives – adolescence, pregnancy, childbirth, and old age – that are related to their biological sex as well as to entrenched gender norms, leading to pervasive? discrimination and violence. 

What do we still need to know about gender and social protection 

Aysha Akhter Khushi (18) started her own business selling eggs with the help of cash transfers. © UNICEF/UN069642/Kiron

Recognising the crucial role gender plays in the objectives and outcomes/impacts of social protectionUNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti launched the GRASSP research programme in January 2020, funded with aid from the UK government. The GRASSP research programme explores how gender and age vulnerabilities and inequalities can be prevented and addressed through adequate social protection. GRASSP supports this by building a robust evidence base focused on what works, how, and why to strengthen social protection systems and enhance gender equality throughout the life course. The life course lens is particularly relevant as ages and stages in life have implications for the risks and vulnerabilities that women and girls face and that social protection can help address.  

At the outset of GRASSPseveral evidence gaps were identified, including from the literature on non-contributory programmes, which formed the basis of a range of questions 

  • How can social protection transform harmful and discriminatory normsHow can changes in social and gender norms and empowerment across the life course be more effectively measured? What is the role of social and gender norms in designing and implementing social protectionincluding how they constrain or enable social protection objectives? For example, some design features can have unintended consequences and risk perpetuating gender normsas demonstrated in a study on Tanzania’s Productive Social Safety Net (PSSN) Programme which reported increased workload for women as an unintended result. This was due to the programme design and conditionalities, with women being responsible for compliance with health and education conditions that reinforced gender roles.  
  • How can different social protection programmes and other complementary interventions better address time burdens of unpaid care and domestic work? For instance, by providing childcare support to women with care responsibilities, women can increase their participation in the paid workforce. Both India and Ethiopia’s public works programmes include childcare provision, with Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) additionally providing flexible working hours for women. 
  • How do design features and implementation processes of social protection systems enhance or hamper gender equality (including: type of benefit, size, duration and predictability of the benefit, payment mechanisms, and delivery modalities)? For example, providing benefits at the household level may not always benefit women and girls or the household more broadly, as highlighted in a think piece on India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) where the overall entitlement of 100 days of work is based on a household. 
  • What are the political economy factors that explain how and why social protection systems are gender-responsive, and sustainable (or not)? What is the effectiveness and cost-benefit of different social protection systems and how can they be financed in a gender-responsive way? For instance, better evidence of the cost-effectiveness and sustainability of a gender-responsive programme may strengthen the political case for spending on gender-aware social protection programmes, as suggested for the case of Mexico’s PROSPERA programme which ended in part due to a loss of political support for continued spending on the programme. 

Marking the launch of GRASSP, eleven expert think pieces have been produced to develop on these themes, identify gaps and spark discussion. These contributions investigate how risks and vulnerabilities are gendered, explore how context matters for effective interventions, and reflect on past achievements and challenges. 

Why now matters more than ever 

2020 is a landmark year for advancing gender equality. It begins the UN decade of action and acceleration towards the SDGs, including Goal 1 (ending all poverty) and Goal 5 (achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls), which both explicitly mention social protection as a key instrument for their achievement (see Targets 1.3 and 5.4). It also marks twenty-five years since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted at the Fourth World Conference of Women. Much progress has been made since to reduce poverty and address gender inequality, yet significant gender gaps remain. 

The COVID-19 pandemic this year, and the measures put in place to mitigate its effect, has the potential to disrupt global progress towards the SDGs.  While the virus has certainly dominated our conversations and work, this global emergency has, in fact, shined a light on pre-existing health, social, economic and political inequalities between and within countries, such as the heightened exposure to and risk of violence against women and children 

The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of considering gender in both the design of social protection and its objectives. As a staggering number of countries implement or adapt social protection in response to the health, economic, and social crisis, the case for including gender is strengthened by the measures in response to the pandemic. For example, new health and hygiene requirements and school and daycare closures will mean women and girls, who already do the bulk of unpaid care and domestic work in the home in “normal” circumstances, will likely be the ones picking up the extra burdenThe rapid increase in care work will also be felt by women outside the home, who disproportionately work in care-related jobs as frontline workers (paid domestic work, elder care, health care). 

Gender-responsive, age-sensitive social protection  

If well-designed and implemented, taking into consideration specific gender needs and priorities at different stages and ages in life, a gender-responsive, age-sensitive approach to social protection can ensure equal access to protection from poverty, vulnerability and social exclusion for women, girls, men and boys 

For GRASSP, gender-responsive and age-sensitive social protection systems, in both design and implementation, will bring attention back to the fundamental principles of equality, while also – by their very nature – bringing focus to an individual life course needs and the different lived experiences of women, girls, men and boys. A core question then becomes, what does it mean for social protection to be “well designed” so that it promotes rather than hinders gender equality?  

Globally, the most developed social protection systems are already age-sensitive, and are increasingly gender-responsive, though significant gaps remainIn low- and middle-income countries – where social protection has been promoted in recent decades and is more likely to be viewed as a policy of “last resort” reserved for the poorest or those who are unable to help themselves – this is less often the case. The GRASSP research programme, with its focus on low- and middle-income countries, has a role to play here in complementing efforts by those promoting social protection floors to revive and reinstate a life course focus — which is already age-sensitive and can be gender-responsive — to social protection 

Already, the research has suggested a number of powerful conclusions: 

  • Generally speaking, social protection based on individual entitlements, rather than household transfers, are more likely to be empowering for women. 
  • Childcare provision plays a fundamental complementary role in gender-responsive social protection systems. 
  • Embedding conditionalities in social protection programmes has a high risk of entrenching traditional gender roles.  

As we continue to adapt our work throughout the pandemic, COVID-19 lays bare the gender and age inequalities that are continually worsened by income poverty, discrimination and violence. Now more than ever, this research aims to bring back attention to fundamental principles of equity and entitlement into social protectionsupporting governments and practitioners with evidence to create inclusive and rights-based social protection systems that contribute to gender equality. 

Find out more about the GRASSP research programme.  

Read more like this:

Pathways’ Perspectives: Why are human rights considerations fundamental to inclusive and lifecycle social protection systems?

Blog:  COVID-19’s total burden of disease extends beyond those who get sick, and this has potentially deadly consequences for women and girls.

News: Webinar reflections on a “Gender data series”

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