Logo UNICEF Innocenti
Office of Research-Innocenti
menu icon

Social protection in humanitarian contexts: how can programming respond to adolescent- and gender-specific vulnerabilities and promote young people’s resilience?

Nicola Jones, Overseas Development Institute
15 Jan 2020
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.

Nicola Jones, Overseas Development Institute

The important role of social protection programming (especially cash/in-kind transfers and cash or food for work) in responding to humanitarian crises has been gaining increasing recognition. Its role in addressing gender- and lifecycle-specific risks and vulnerabilities has similarly gained traction. However, there has been very little discussion on how responsive such programming is to adolescents’ multi-dimensional vulnerabilities in humanitarian contexts – despite the fact that young people under 20 years are disproportionately affected by humanitarian crises. To initiate a conversation on this important nexus, this think piece briefly reviews existing social protection programming in humanitarian contexts, using a gender and adolescence lens. It considers how far adolescents and their gendered vulnerabilities have been included in programme design, as well as monitoring and evaluation (M&E). It concludes by outlining implications for programming, practice and policy, with suggestions on how programming can be strengthened to realise the rights and capabilities of adolescent girls and boys, and to advance progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including poverty eradication (SDG 1), health and wellbeing (SDG 3), quality education (SDG 4), gender equality (SDG 5) and reducing inequality (SDG 10).

Approaching social protection through an adolescent and gender lens

Adolescence (10–19 years) is a pivotal life stage that brings about rapid physical, cognitive and psycho-emotional changes. It therefore offers an important window of opportunity to offset childhood disadvantage, to alter an individual’s development trajectory (in both the short and longer term), and to reduce intra-generational poverty and exclusion. National governments and donors increasingly recognise the need to invest in today’s generation of adolescents (the largest ever) to reap the ‘demographic dividend’. There is increasing evidence that social protection, and especially cash transfers, have multiple positive impacts on developmental outcomes , but the evidence base on how effectively such programming tackles adolescent-specific risks and vulnerabilities is nascent. The multi-agency Transfer Project has made an important contribution, exploring the adolescent- and youth-specific impacts of household-focused social assistance programmes and there is a small but emerging evidence base on adolescent-targeted cash transfers. Existing evidence is, however, mostly limited to education and health outcomes, highlighting a major gap in exploring the broader range of support that adolescents need to tackle multi-dimensional vulnerabilities and reach their full human capabilities – including in key areas such as freedom from violence and bodily integrity, psychosocial wellbeing, voice and agency, and economic empowerment.  

As gendered social norms become increasingly salient during adolescence, girls and boys find themselves facing distinct gendered vulnerabilities . Yet there has been a paucity of attention to the ways in which social protection programming tackles gender- and adolescent-specific risks and vulnerabilities. For example, while adolescent girls are known to face heightened risks of sexual and gender-based violence, unmet sexual and reproductive health (SRH) needs, child marriage, social isolation, and mental ill-health, there remains scant evidence on how far social protection programming (either directly or as a part of a cash-plus approach) addresses these gender-specific risks. As we argue below, the evidence gaps are compounded in the case of humanitarian settings. For example, we know that adolescent girls in conflict-affected contexts are at especially high risk of child marriage and are unlikely to attend secondary school. We also know that countries with recurrent disasters and conflict have the most widespread abuses in terms of child labour, which disproportionately impacts adolescent boys. Despite this, social protection programming is rarely tailored to the needs of adolescents in such contexts, and we know little about how to address their vulnerabilities and promote their resilience.

Social protection in humanitarian contexts – what is the state of the evidence?

Cash transfer programming in humanitarian assistance has grown significantly in recent years, with the Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP) estimating that in 2016 $2.8 billion was disbursed through cash and vouchers – almost double the 2014 amount. Globally, social protection programming is helping to meet the needs of an estimated 21.3 million refugees and 38 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) – mainly for food, shelter, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), but also education, health and protection. Programming tends to be either household-focused or category-focused (e.g. households with family members with disabilities, households where women and girls are at risk of gender-based violence, households with school-aged children). Initiatives can be further broken down into interventions supporting: (1) communities affected by natural disasters or health epidemics (e.g. Ebola in West Africa, earthquakes and tsunamis in Asia); (2) refugees affected by acute conflict (e.g. Yemen and Rohingya); (3) refugees affected by protracted conflict (Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees);  and (4) IDPs affected by conflict and forced to relocate within their own country, but away from their homes (e.g. communities affected by ethnic-based conflict in Ethiopia’s Somali, Oromia and SNNPR regions in late 2017/2018) (see Annex, Table 1).

The very limited attention to gender- and age-specific risks and vulnerabilities – in both programme design and assessment – is striking. CaLP has explicitly noted the need ‘to strengthen the evidence on CTP [cash transfer programming] and gender equality, and in relation to specific sub-populations of concern, which may also help to bridge gaps in protection evidence’. In a review of emerging lessons on social protection and gendered impacts in humanitarian settings, Simon concurs that the evidence base is very limited, but cites some evidence around women having more say in household decision-making, a reduction in intimate partner violence, and greater psychosocial wellbeing. Evidence on child marriage, vulnerabilities to transactional sex, and spill-over effects on women’s and adolescent girls’ sense of safety and economic empowerment, however, remains very weak.

What do we know about the intersection between social protection programming, gender and adolescence in humanitarian settings?

Given the clear focus in humanitarian settings on meeting basic household needs, programming modalities have largely viewed the household as a unit rather than tailoring assistance to address gender- or age-specific vulnerabilities of individual family members. In light of this, here we briefly explore the evidence on programmes targeting adolescents, as well as more general social protection interventions for which evaluations include evidence of adolescent-specific outcomes.

Labelled cash transfers for education

Although relatively rare, ‘labelled’ cash transfers, designed to improve adolescents’ school attendance, are an emerging type of intervention in humanitarian contexts. Though unconditional, they are targeted at households with primary and secondary school-aged children and include clear messaging about the importance of education. This type of transfer has emerged in protracted refugee crises, including with Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. UNICEF’s cash transfer programme targeting Syrian refugee children in Lebanon provides second-shift students over the age of 10 with higher stipends to offset the opportunity costs of prioritising education over employment. It also includes a cash-plus element that links truant pupils to support services. An evaluation found that cash improved young adolescents’ (aged 10–14) food consumption, reduced the amount of time they spent on household chores, and increased their educational aspirations; however, supply-side constraints meant it did not succeed in increasing school enrolment.

UNICEF Jordan’s Hajati cash transfer programme uses a similar model, targeting households with children aged 6–16 years, while UNICEF’s ‘one-stop’ child and adolescent community centres (makanis) are used to identify and refer out-of-school children, as well as offering educational mentoring, life skills, psychosocial support and child protection referrals. However, evaluation evidence for the Hajati cash-plus approach are awaited.

In Turkey, the Conditional Cash Transfer for Education (CCTE) programme – which helps refugee families offset the costs of education, contingent on 80% attendance – provides cash for secondary enrolment, and giving higher amounts for girls’ enrolment than boys’ enrolment. It also follows up cases of non-attendance, referring children to additional services as needed. However, while it has age- and gender-sensitive design features, disaggregated impacts are not reported.

Elsewhere, the Girls’ Education South Sudan (GESS) cash transfer targets girls only (due to their lower enrolment rates) in upper primary and secondary schools, in all ten former states of the Republic of South Sudan, with approximately $25 a year towards their education costs. In three years (to 2017), it increased the proportion of female students in school from 40% to 46%. It has been especially effective at upper-primary level, given the supply-side constraints and higher costs associated with secondary school.

Protection-related cash-plus initiatives

Besides the child protection components of the labelled cash transfers already discussed (but which have not been systematically evaluated to assess protection-specific outcomes), programming has rarely sought to address child protection vulnerabilities – a surprising gap given the heightened risks of violence and exploitation facing adolescents in humanitarian settings. An important exception is the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) cash-plus gender-based violence response programme in Jordan, targeting vulnerable Syrian refugee women and adolescent girls. It provided unconditional cash assistance combined with case management support to victims of intimate partner violence, as well as ‘gender discussion groups’ for peer support. While the evaluation focused on adult women rather than adolescent girls, it noted positive impacts in terms of reducing girls’ risk of coerced marriage as a means of paying off debts, and their risk of sexual exploitation and abuse, ‘particularly by landlords, aid workers (from both international and community-based organizations), community leaders, and others in positions of power’. The evaluation concluded that cash was only able to temporarily mitigate the risk of child marriage, however, given the economic insecurity facing refugee households and the risks of sexual harassment and related threats to family honour.

General cash transfers evaluated through an adolescent and gender lens

Unlike the growing evidence base on how cash transfers affect adolescents in developmental settings, there is scant analogous evidence from humanitarian settings – albeit with two notable exceptions. In Gaza and the West Bank, the Palestinian National Cash Transfer Programme (PNCTP) – a means-tested transfer aimed at alleviating poverty and improving consumption – reduced participation in exploitative and risky forms of labour among 15–18-year-olds. It also includes categorical targeting of people with disabilities, and while inadequate to meet the complex needs of adolescents with disabilities, found that it facilitated school attendance and health-related needs for some. In Jordan, means-tested cash transfers provided by UNHCR and UNICEF to poor Syrian households were found to improve adolescent wellbeing by enabling access to more and better food, school supplies, clothes, and school transportation.

What are the implications for policy, practice and learning?

Adolescents in humanitarian contexts face a wide variety of age- and gender-specific vulnerabilities, yet there is a paucity of evaluation evidence on how to tackle these vulnerabilities in ways that enhance resilience, mirrored by a lack of evidence on the different vulnerabilities of girls and boys. Drawing on research and lessons from other contexts, however, we can elicit the following suggestions for action:  

Embed an analysis of adolescents’ multi-dimensional vulnerabilities into programme design from the outset; even if social protection programmes are unable to address all vulnerabilities directly, they can support linkages and referrals to complementary programme modalities. While social protection for basic needs (including shelter, food, WASH, health and education) is essential in humanitarian contexts, addressing a broader set of vulnerabilities needs to be reframed as key to adolescent wellbeing rather than viewed as ‘optional extras’. These include:

  • Safe spaces where IDP and refugee adolescents can meet with peers and young people from host communities.
  • Child protection prevention (e.g. life skills classes, telephone helplines) and response services (social worker case management, legal aid, counselling), given adolescents’ heightened vulnerability to sexual exploitation and abuse, trafficking and abduction in such contexts.
  • Access to complementary informal education for out-of-school adolescents, with flexible hours to accommodate working adolescents, emphasising skills-building and options for gaining recognisable qualifications.
  • Psychosocial and mental health support to address conflict and displacement-related trauma.
  • Tailored outreach and inclusive services for adolescents with disabilities.
  • Investment in gender-sensitive WASH services (including separate toilets and menstruation dignity kits).
  • ‘Labelled’ transfers to delay child marriage, given that regular cash transfers (which are usually low in value) appear relatively ineffective in delaying marriage.
  • ‘Labelled’ cash transfers for tertiary education to counteract the risk of demotivating students from staying in school if opportunities for post-secondary education are scarce.

Ensure that programme design takes into account crisis characteristics and stages (e.g. initial onset vs protracted crisis) but embeds a longer-term development perspective from the outset (including an understanding of the specific vulnerabilities facing adolescent girls and boys), to maximise resources and strategic planning. Design social protection programming to be sustainable and avoid funding volatility, which only exacerbates affected households’ sense of vulnerability. In addition, transfer learning from refugee settings to IDP settings, where communities often receive less support due to political sensitivities (Jones, Baird et al., forthcoming).

Invest in research and M&E of social protection programming in diverse humanitarian contexts that routinely disaggregates by gender and age – whether or not there is an explicit focus on gender or lifecycle vulnerabilities – to maximise learning from household-targeted as well as adolescent-focused social protection initiatives. 

Download the bibliography