Icon Our Work

Challenging misassumptions behind policymaking: “Women’s participation in social safety net programmes increases their agency and influence”


Building on Maxine Molyneux’s post on misassumptions around social safety net programmes being ‘gender aware’, in this edition, Anasuya Sengupta, Senior Social Policy Specialist and Holly Seglah, Social Policy Officer at Development Pathways, further debunk the notion that women’s participation in safety net programmes increases their agency and influence.  

Gender inequality is intertwined with prevailing gender norms. Gender norms, in any society, are formed on the basis of ‘value’ placements on resources, people and work. For example, when a lower cultural value is attached to women, their work, such as providing childcare in their family, is also of lower economic value in comparison to men’s work, such as doing an activity that earns an income.[i]

Some of the ways to change gender norms – deep-rooted, widespread and historical – is to empower women through increased agency and influence in decisions that concern them, and through better access to important resources. There have been several attempts by policymakers over the course of the last 25 years, since the Beijing Declaration on women’s rights, to identify policies and programmes that can become the silver bullet for women’s empowerment. 

One of the more recent and persistent attempts has been to bring social safety net programmes under the banner of ‘gender-sensitive social protection’. Social safety net programmes – essentially work fare programmes – are popular in low- and middle-income countries and are heavily supported by donors. Interpretations of gender-responsiveness among advocates of large-scale social safety net programmes are simplistic and riddled with misassumptions, or what we can term ‘gender blind spots’. The most common blind spot is that women’s participation in these programmes increases their agency and influence. 

simple examination of social safety net programmes reveals that increasing women’s participation by no means guarantees any change in gender norms, such as increased agency or influence within their household or in their community. 

Many women are obliged to work on these schemes without receiving a wage or any form of direct remuneration. This is due to the use of ‘household targeting’ for the selection of participants in these programmes, where the payment for work is given to the household head and not to the person who has actually worked. Thus, household targeting not only reinforces patriarchal structures but further exacerbates the invisible nature of women’s labour. These programmes violate the foundations of labour and economic rights, not just for women, but for all on these schemes who are not receiving pay for their labour.

Moreover, donors and implementers appear to ignore women’s existing work burden, both paid and unpaid, with participation in these programmes increasing the ‘time poverty’ of these women: the lack of time available to women to tend to their various priorities such as economic activities and care work, and not to forget the need for rest and leisure.

The sad reality is that safety net programmes are often profoundly gender-insensitive: either instrumentalising women to become champions of these programmes or stigmatising them when they fail to live up to programme obligations (as Maxine rightly says, ‘making use of women’). Yet, social safety net programmes remain popular with donors and governments, with a repeated focus on ‘participation’ of women in these programmes as an end in and of itself. 

[i] Sengupta, A., Ochieng, D and Sibun, D. 2020. Integrating Gender in Safety Nets and Resilience Programmes: A contextual analysis of communities in South Sudan, WFP, Juba.