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Questioning women’s role as the sole recipients of benefits: contrasting evidence on gender-sensitive social protection programming


A mural celebrating motherhood in the municipality of Huautla in the Mexican Sierra Mazateca

Juan Gonzalo Jaramillo Mejia 

In the midst of speaking to families benefitting from various social assistance schemes in rural Mexico, aon-line conversation has made me question again the assumption that it is best to target women as the main recipient of benefits. On International Women’s Day, can we further delve into that discussion, interrogate the prevailing narratives on gender and highlight the obstacles we face as a sector in promoting gender-equitable outcomes through social protection interventions?

So who does it best?  

As noted by Berk Ozler, former colleague Silvio Daidone and others on social mediathe evidence does not emphatically support the long and strong held belief that women are more likely than men to better invest social protection benefits. Even as various studies have suggested that women invest a higher proportion of resources to benefit their households and communities, especially children, a mounting body of evidence questions these findings.  

First, the idea that money is mainly spent by men on temptation goods, such as cigarettes and alcohol, has been systematically mythbusted. Second, studies have at least implicitly recognized that men can be as altruistic and caring as women, noting that the impacts of benefits are not necessarily determined by the sex of the main recipientIn particular, a systematic study that reviewed the evidence on the impact on family well-being of giving economic resources to women instead of men found that issues of selection and attribution are still a crucial missing component of developing gender-sensitive social protection. 

The focus on women and some of the disappointing results in their benefit  

The designation of women as the main recipients of social protection benefits is a controversial topic as evidence is mixed and ideology tends to play its part too. Gender inequalities more abruptly affect women worldwide, preventing them from accessing productive resources. Making them the recipients of benefits is rightfully seen by many (including me), as an effective means to close the wide gender gap. Moreover, it is important as a means of compensating for the historical social debt maintained by the state with its female citizens. However, transferring resources and social protection benefits to women is no panacea, as structural inequalities come into play in the governance and implementation of programmes, which hinder the achievement of well-designed and intended initiatives. 

growing body of evidence has shown the potential of some types of social protection programmes – in particular conditional cash transfers – to empower women yet some studies have shown some contrasting results and worrying disempowering effects. Lets take, for instance, the mistreatment, humiliation and abuse of women by programme staff and frontline service providers who impose extra official conditionalitiesWhile there is a welfare transfer involved, women are effectively stigmatised and robbed of dignity and forced to prove themselves worthy of the transfer. Additionally, research from Mexico suggests an increase in domestic and intimate partner violence due to women’s enhanced agency, access to, and control over resources as a result of their participation in social protection schemes. Furthermore, conditionalities have reinforced women’s confinement to reproductive roles and responsibilities, preventing the promotion and recognition of women as productive and active economic agents. They have also added to women’s work burdens and increased their time poverty as they juggle between domestic and productive work to ensure they are not penalised and, therefore, prevented from receiving the much-needed financial supportSome argue that in fact, women have been “instrumentalised when only seen as the recipients of benefits and, in effect, transformed into ‘development conduits’ rather than the recipients of social protection programmes in their own right as citizens.  

Fulfilling the revolutionary and transformative promise of social protection 

The contrasting evidence on the gendered outcomes of social protection programmecannot ignore the many remarkable efforts made to effectively respond to the different sort of risks and vulnerabilities that women and men face. My colleague Maja Gavrilovic and I have extensively researched and compiled global good practices and innovations in the designdelivery and M&E of gender-sensitive cash transfers and public work programmes in three FAO technical guides. The problem is that, in order to fulfil the revolutionary and transformative promise of social protection, we need to do more including critically interrogating our biases and understandings of gender as well as broadening the programmatic focus we have placed on women. The latter implies making space to meaningfully engage men as partners and allies of gender equality within social protection schemes

Rebalancing the burden we impose on women is necessary to address the disempowering effects that have been indicated by research. By focusing on women only, conditionalities exempt and deprive men from taking their fair share of the household caregiving responsibilities and domestic work.  Given the recent online social media discussionsit seems that women are still considered “better” than men at investing in their household and, in particular, children’s wellbeing because they have traditionally been confined to domestic and reproductive roles. 

We need to support the transformation of social gendered norms and roles, incentivising men to take an active part in the redistribution of reproductive work. Social protection needs to help dismantle the stark division of paid and unpaid domestic work, which is at the root of socially gendered inequalities that determine the different risks and experiences of poverty and vulnerability faced by women and menMoreover, we need to promote narratives that help induce a change in gender roles by emphasising fatherhood as much as motherhood.  

Finally, it is important to note that social protection systems have not been able to keep up with the pace of change transforming the traditional gender order. Therefore, many of our assumptions about gender are increasingly out of phase with many people’s lives and self-understandings and are unable to recognise other forms of household arrangements different to those centred in nuclear, heterosexual families supported by a male breadwinner. Through my recent fieldwork research in Mexico, I have found that Prospera staff have promoted a gender discourse reinforcing the stereotype of men as consumers of temptation goods, unable to rightly invest money in the benefit of their family. 

Failing to recognise cooperation and the alignment of incentives between couples, I have found that these mandatory monthly talks attended by female Prospera beneficiaries can result in women being influenced to accept a negative stereotype of their husbands, including those married to men who are supportive of their wives and do not have a history of alcohol abuse, wasting money and violence. 

Our guest blog on gender-sensitive social protection is by Juan Gonzalo Jaramillo Mejia, a Project Manager and Researcher on Inclusion, Innovation and Social Protection at CGIAR and has technical expertise in social protection, micro-finance, food security, gender and agro-rural development.


The cartoons depicting a change of gender roles in this article have been designed and kindly provided by the Communications team of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in Mexico.


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