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Deepta Chopra, Institute of Development Studies

Disclaimer: The views expressed within this Think Piece are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of UNICEF. This Think Piece has not been edited to official publication standards and UNICEF accepts no responsibility for errors.

Deepta Chopra, Institute of Development Studies

The term ‘social protection’ describes how members of a society are supported and protected in the event of individual and collective adversities and distress. The recent Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have given social protection much importance – both as a critical instrument for poverty reduction (Goal 1), as well as achieving gender equality (Goal 5). Social protection can either be state-funded or privately-funded, and include the following types of instruments:

  • provision measures, which provide relief from deprivation;
  • preventive measures, which attempt to prevent deprivation;
  • promotive measures, which aim to enhance incomes and capabilities; and
  • transformative measures, which seek to address concerns of social justice and exclusion.

This think-piece concerns itself with the design and delivery of social protection programmes in order to enhance gender equality. As Chopra and Ugalde argue, gender-sensitive social protection measures can be transformative when they necessitate a recognition of women’s needs and priorities, as well as aim to reduce vulnerability through changes in social and economic structures.

While social protection measures have not always or explicitly aimed to achieve gender equality, there is a strong link between the design and implementation of social protection measures, and the achievement of gender equality. Literature has highlighted the gendered differences in a) the risks and vulnerabilities that people face, and b) their coping mechanisms. Further, as Meinzen-Dick et al. argue, the gendered roles and responsibilities that women and men carry out within their homes also impact the type and extent of their vulnerabilities, the ways in which shocks are experienced, and their differential abilities and coping strategies. Gender-specific vulnerabilities are exacerbated by more systemic factors, such as unequal labour markets (particularly regarding lower labour market participation for women), differential access to assets, environmental risks, and expenses incurred as a result of ill health and life-cycle events, such as weddings and funerals.

Sabates-Wheeler and Kabeer have delineated gender-related constraints into gender-specific, gender-intensified, and gender-imposed constraints. Gender-specific constraints refer to constraints resulting from varying roles, norms, values, and customs leading to different levels of labour market and household activities participation which in turn can result in disadvantaged positions by virtue of an individual’s gender (ibid). Gender-intensified constraints entail prevailing patterns of inequality which are exacerbated by ‘gender-specific beliefs and customs’. Again, such gender-intensified asymmetries can be tied to ascribed norms of social spaces and systems (ibid.). Lastly, imposed gender constraints describe activities that exhibit certain biases and prejudices outside social spaces such as the household or community, that can result in asymmetric allocations of resources and opportunities, for example discrimination in hiring processes (ibid).

Building on Antonopoulos, Chopra and Ugalde have argued that the life-cycle approach to social protection is a useful way to think about social protection programmes that take into account these gendered constraints, needs and priorities  at different stages of people’s lives. But what does this mean in reality for the design and implementation of social protection programmes? This is the focus of this think piece, which evaluates a much-acclaimed programme, India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), against the principles of a gendered life-cycle approach to social protection. I first examine the design features of the MGNREGA, assessing the extent to which these design features take into account gender-specific, gender-intensified and gender-imposed constraints at different stages of women and girls’ lives. This think piece also draws on recent research on the implementation of this Act to understand how these design features deliver gender equality in practice. In doing so, I aim to draw out some lessons for building gender into the design and delivery of public works programmes specifically, and social protection programmes more generally, in order to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment.

A gendered assessment of the design features of the MGNREGA

The MGNREGA has the following key gender-sensitive provisions:

  • one-third reservation at worksites for women
  • equal wages to men and women
  • specific works for pregnant and lactating women
  • reservations in central and state employment guarantee councils
  • provision of crèche and child carer on worksite, and
  • provision of safe drinking water for all, periods of rest, first aid, and shade for children.

In addition, the Act’s operational guidelines lay out preferential treatment for women to work closer to their residence, preference for women as mates (work supervisors), and help for opening bank accounts.

These design features specifically address women’s differential roles – not only as workers and beneficiaries, but also as carers. The Act seeks to cater to the needs of women at different stages of their life-cycle at the work place – especially supporting them through physically less-strenuous tasks, breaks etc. during pregnancy; providing tasks such as child-carer for older women; and setting up crèches for children at the workplace. Preferential treatment in getting work closer to women’s residence also reflects the recognition of women’s unpaid care work roles and responsibilities and addresses gender-related constraints of mobility.   

In setting out the provision for one-third reservations of women workers, the MGNREGA specifically seeks to address gender-imposed constraints in the hiring of workers. In fact, in providing reservations and equal wages, the MGNREGA addresses women’s vulnerability as workers in least-protected sectors. It is therefore an important and positive step in engendering social protection. The Act’s design also takes into account women’s disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care work through provision of childcare facilities and work closer to the home.

However, it is interesting to note that the overall work entitlement in MGNREGA is based on a household – with each rural household being entitled to 100 days of work. In this way, the MGNREGA leaves open the possibility of bargaining at the household level in terms of who gets employment through this Act. In doing so, the Act pre-supposes a model of co-operation and bargaining amongst men and women as equal members of the household. It can thus be concluded that the Act does not address the gender-imposed constraints that women face within the household. Instead, it reflects the false assumption prevalent in many social protection programmes, of women being able to gain access to social protection through their family structures, ‘pivoting on their relationship to either a husband or father’. It was only after much pressure that the very definition of ‘household’ was expanded to include single-women households in the Act.

Finally, while the MGNREGA design takes into account specific life-cycle constraints such as pregnancy, the very nature of the work (hard, physical, manual labour) does not give due consideration to the intense and often-depleting nature of this work. There are no links to infrastructure provision, for example, transport to work sites (which is safe, reliable and quick). In addition, the low level of wages (minimum wages which are output and task-based), and the lack of provision of insurance to workers all point to MGNREGA’s design features falling short of addressing the gendered nature of labour markets.

Interestingly, the MGNREGA’s design features reflect a critical aspect of women’s role as decision-makers outside their household. There are provisions for women’s participation in local governance institutions to decide the types of work to be carried out. The reservations for women in central and state councils, and appropriate timings for social audits that allow women to participate, are all reflective of the importance that the Act gives to considering women as citizens/ decision-makers. At the same time, MGNREGA design fails to counter structural constraints such as gender norms that restrict women’s voice and mobility in these collective/ public spaces. Provisions to counter restrictions on women’s voice and participation in community-level decision making regarding the type and location of works would have been critical in recognising and addressing these structural constraints.

Assessing the Implementation of MGNREGA using a gender lens

Social protection programmes need to have gender-sensitive implementation mechanisms in place in order to effect gender-transformative outcomes. Research into the MGNREGA implementation has shown that while the MGNREGA goes a long way in terms of gender-sensitive design, its implementation falls substantially short of this objective.

This is not to say that MGNREGA has not improved lives of women – to the contrary in fact.  Women have participated in high numbers, thereby showing the success of the reservation clause. Their participation is also accompanied by a large number of bank accounts, although control over wages by women is complicated by various factors, as has been shown in various studies such as  Sudarshan and Khera and Nayak, reflecting active contestations around gender roles and norms. However, it is also evident that this reservation clause in many places has been taken as the maximum number of women allowed to participate in the programme. Preference is also given to able-bodied women, and there are reports of pregnant and lactating mothers being turned away from worksites.  

Overall however, it can be argued that the implementation of MGNREGA is far from being gender-sensitive or contributing to women’s empowerment. While the Act offers 100 days of employment, women work only if they have to. Women who can afford to also choose to not work or drop out of MGNREGA work, often because of lack of childcare and infrastructure. While there have been differential schedule of rates adopted in some states women in most states remain disadvantaged by MGNREGA’s adherence to group and task-based payments. This system also discriminates against women at different stages of their life-cycle, with pregnant and lactating women, and elderly women being less preferred or paid minimally. The nature of work that women and men do itself is deeply gendered, and shaped by gender norms around roles and tasks – men do most of the digging work, while women are responsible for the lifting and moving of soil. In fact, this then translates to men being paid better as digging is perceived to be harder work than lifting and moving soil. In addition, drudgery in the nature of the work under the MGNREGA with very low returns, and the lack of support for their unpaid care work responsibilities, have left women exhausted and physically and emotionally depleted. Furthermore, despite equal participation of women as workers in the Act at many places, progress on provisions such as appointment of female mates remains patchy. The largely patriarchal make-up of rural India deepens the divide between female workers and male mates and engineers.

Lack of gender-sensitisation training amongst programme implementers, lack of staff and capacity, and lack of funds, have also translated into a lack of the crèche provision – which is a blatant violation of the spirit and letter of the Act. This provision is not monitored, even amidst an otherwise intensive M&E system – contributing to and reinforcing the non-implementation of this crucial clause. As a result of no childcare at the workplace, studies have shown how women leave behind younger children with older siblings or with older women, or carry them to the workplace with them, exposing them to hazardous conditions. Lack of infrastructure such as electricity, water, and fuel in villages also constrained women’s time and energy to participate in the works, as well as in decision-making processes around the Act. There are no provisions within MGNREGA to make connections with public services such as water, electricity, and gas.

The provision of women’s participation in community-level decision making processes for selection of type and location of works is scarcely implemented. Gendered norms pertaining to women’s mobility and voice have resulted in either a lack of women’s participation in these planning processes or rendered them silent spectators. State and central employment guarantee councils are largely defunct, and therefore again, women’s participation in these structures is non-existent. 

Finally, the individualistic empowerment that social protection programmes such as MGNREGA offer, are neither sustainable nor desirable. Zaidi et al. found prevalence of girls being taken out of school to undertake domestic chores and sibling care, while their mothers worked under MGNREGA. Absence of childcare facilities at worksites, and lack of flexible timings reflect the gender biases inherent in the implementation mechanisms of MGNREGA which consider the ideal MGNREGA worker as male and therefore unfettered by unpaid care work responsibilities. This also goes against the life-cycle approach that a gendered approach to social protection entails, instead creating a vicious cycle of inter-generational inequality.

Lessons for gender-sensitive social protection programmes

As noted above, the MGNREGA’s design has innovative and adequate provisions on gender, and thereby a strong potential for effecting transformative change in gender power relations. However, ‘gender-sensitive design does not always translate into gender-equitable outcomes’. Using a life-cycle approach and considering the ways in which social protection programmes can address gender-specific, gender-intensified and gender-imposed constraints at different stages of women and girls’ lives is critical in order to ensure that the design and delivery of social protection programmes is gender-sensitive. Some lessons for transformative, gender-sensitive social protection that can be drawn out from literature and from the above discussion are:

  • ‘Gender-sensitivity’ cannot translate to looking at women as the main beneficiaries. Instead, a concerted effort is needed to understand and address the gendered risks and vulnerabilities that arise from women’s varying roles – as workers/ producers, as carers and as decision-makers, is critical.
  • In considering women’s roles as workers, the design and implementation of social protection programmes need to address structural barriers and gendered divisions of labour within and outside the home, and not pre-suppose women as primary carers and men as the ‘workers’.
  • It is also crucial for social protection programmes to take into account women’s disproportionate share of unpaid care work responsibilities. Without doing this, social protection programmes risk reinforcing gender roles, and deepening the depletion that women face in their lives.
  • Further, a paternalistic approach to beneficiaries undermines rights-based approaches and fails to foster ‘women’s consciousness as full citizens – as shown in Holmes and Jones and Jones et al. It is therefore crucial that social protection programmes promote and realise, both in design and implementation, the substantive participation of women as decision-makers.
  • Participation in social protection programmes is not cost-free. As Britto and Molyneux and Thompson argue, social protection programmes often ignore the costs of women’s involvement in terms of time and energy spent accessing the programme (including transfers, insurance and work), and therefore underestimate the little time that is left for other productive and caring activities This creates a risk of falling participation rates, reduced spread of the programme, but also adds to women’s work burdens and exacerbates their depletion.
  • Social protection programmes need to expand their attention beyond individual women as recipients and situate women within their social milieu. This involves ensuring meaningful participation of women in programme design and implementation. This also necessitates visualising the roles that younger girls and older women play in women’s lives, so that the displacement of roles and responsibilities from the individual women is recognised and addressed.
  • Social protection programme benefits are often too small to make a difference to women’s lives even economically. These benefits are also subject to negotiations and contestations within the household. The design of social protection programmes needs to take into account women’s needs, vulnerabilities and bargaining power within households, to ensure that benefits accrue to them and are useful.
  • Gender-sensitisation and training of implementing staff are key in order to ensure that gender-sensitive provisions of social protection programmes are implemented adequately and with commitment, rather than as an additional add-on that over-burdened social protection staff need to undertake.
  • Monitoring of gender-provisions is crucial to ensuring accountability and therefore effective implementation. This monitoring needs to go beyond counting women participants, to actually assessing and recording changes in women’s lives because of the social protection programme.
  • Gender-sensitive social protection design and implementation in itself is critical within the parameters of specific programme objectives, design and implementation processes. Equally important however, are the links that such social protection programmes can make to other programmes and services, specifically infrastructure and public services, in order to help overcome the multitude of gendered constraints that women face.

In summary, a transformative and gender-sensitive approach to social protection has the potential to foster gender equality and promote women’s empowerment. This approach acknowledges three critical aspects: a) firstly, the inter-twined roles that women play as workers, carers and decision-makers that need to be catered for by social protection; b) that gender inequality itself is a source of vulnerability and risk, manifested in the form of gender-specific, gender-intensified and gender-imposed constraints, as well as shape coping mechanisms differently; and c) that these risks, vulnerabilities, and therefore needs, have life-cycle variations, which need to be catered through social protection programmes following a life-cycle approach.

Finally, more research that tracks and demonstrates the gendered impacts (both positive and negative) of the implementation (or non-implementation) of social protection programmes and provisions is critical. This will help create a body of evidence around good practice principles of what works in gendering social protection programmes and promoting women’s empowerment.

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