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Gender, social protection and life course research: moving the field(s) forward

Elena Camilletti and Prerna Banati, UNICEF Office of Research—Innocenti
15 Jan 2020

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

Elena Camilletti and Prerna Banati, UNICEF Office of Research—Innocenti

What role does social protection play in reducing gender inequality? How do men and women, boys and girls, experience risks and vulnerabilities? What resources can they draw from to cope with these different challenges? How can public social protection systems and programmes be sensitive, or responsive, to gender dynamics within and across contexts? Can they help transform harmful social norms, power imbalances, and unequal gender relations, and if so, how?

In recent decades, the evidence base on social protection programmes and their effects on individual well-being has expanded across many low- and middle-income countries. Many studies have found evidence of positive effects of social protection programmes on poverty reduction, food security, school enrolment and attendance, sexual and reproductive health knowledge and information, and contraceptive use. Some have also found positive effects on mental health, employment, and other important well-being outcomes. Yet many questions remain. In particular, there is lack of evidence on how the multiple and multidimensional ways that risks and vulnerabilities (which social protection seeks to tackle) are gendered, and on how social protection systems and programmes reflect this in their design and implementation.

SOCIAL PROTECTION: the set of public measures, policies, and programmes that aim to provide individuals and households with the necessary support – both income and access to services – to be able to withstand any reduction or loss of income due to risks and contingencies throughout the life-cycle.

For this reason, in January 2019, the UNICEF Office of Research—Innocenti invited high-profile scholars, practitioners, and development partners to write think pieces on gender and social protection in low- and middle-income countries, keeping age and the life-course in consideration. The series has the following objectives:

  • To share, debate, and openly discuss the next-generation questions on social protection and gender across the life-course;
  • To reflect on past experiences, achievements, and failures;
  • To share perspectives and provocative questions, recognising the diversity of contexts and approaches.

The eleven contributions investigated how risks and vulnerabilities are gendered, in particular for adolescents and youth, and explored how context matters for effective interventions. Case studies shed light on how existing programmes have failed to appropriately embed a gender analysis in their design and implementation, and how new programmes are seeking to learn from past experiences and promote gender equality outcomes.

To support the think piece series, an Experts’ Workshop on gender-responsive age-sensitive social protection was convened by UNICEF Innocenti on Monday 6th May 2019 in Florence, Italy. It provided an opportunity for experts to present their think pieces, discuss key issues in understanding what social protection means for reducing gender inequality, and identify conceptual, theoretical, and empirical gaps to be addressed going forward.

The workshop was attended by 40 people, including researchers and practitioners. Following a keynote address by Charlotte Watts (Chief Scientific Adviser for the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development), the workshop was structured around four thematic panels:

Panel 1. Adolescence and Life Course Lenses in Social Protection Programming – This panel discussed how risks and vulnerabilities are gendered. It also explored specific challenges during adolescence, which make it a crucial period in the life-course for investing in gender-responsive social protection systems.

Panel 2. From Strategies to Programmes – Gendered Analysis of Social Protection – This panel discussed how a gender analysis has been integrated (or not) in the strategies and design features of existing social protection programmes in low- and middle-income countries.

Panel 3. Design and Implementation Considerations in Gender Responsive Social Protection – This panel focused on the implementation of social protection programmes and whether the gender-sensitive design features are effective.

Panel 4. Social Protection in Context: Humanitarian, Climate Change and Complex Crises – This panel discussed gender-responsive and age-sensitive social protection tailored to complex contexts, including disaster-prone settings and protracted humanitarian emergencies.

The workshop facilitated dialogue among experts, who were asked to share lessons and evidence, identify gaps, and map the key big questions that should shape research going forward. The five major conclusions that emerged from the think piece series and the Experts’ Workshop are summarized below.

Outcome 1: Risks and vulnerabilities are gendered across the life-course, and particularly during adolescence

Risks and vulnerabilities play out differently across an individual’s life, as do coping strategies and mechanisms. Transitions and turning points in life, such as starting school or work, getting married or having children, are critical junctures for social protection, as the types of vulnerabilities people face – and/or the coping strategies and resources that people draw from – can change.

Within the life-cycle, adolescence and youth are critical periods, with distinct risks and vulnerabilities as well as coping strategies and available resources. As Molyneux (2019) puts it in her think piece, adolescent girls and boys face unique challenges today, including: economic problems, such as unemployment or underemployment; poor secondary education or lack of training; attempts to restrict their sexual and reproductive health without providing them with the appropriate information, skills, and resources to conduct healthy sexual and romantic relationships; and lack of their representation and participation in key decision-making forums. While girls’ rights are relatively more at risk in many situations and contexts, boys too face specific risks due to harmful social norms and masculinities, which can, for instance, put them at risk of violence or school drop-out.

The nuanced complexities of how gender defines risks and vulnerabilities, and strategies to respond to them, indicate the need for more holistic and inclusive approaches to adolescence in social protection. Such approaches would better contribute to mitigate the risks adolescents face, while enhancing their life chances through integrated policy interventions and approaches. These complexities also call for more disaggregated data to understand the risks, vulnerabilities and impacts of social protection by sex, age, and other intersecting dimensions and identities, at both the individual and household level. Moreover, these complexities require going beyond sex-disaggregated data toward the investigation of gender outcomes, such as empowerment and gender norms, to understand which programmes should be implemented in order to achieve gender equality.

Outcome 2: Well-designed social protection can make a difference for gender equality

Recognising that risks and vulnerabilities across the life-cycle are gendered means understanding how social protection programmes are designed, and importantly, the extent to which their design features are gender-responsive. This is critical to ensuring that these programmes effectively address gender inequalities. Gender-responsive design also reflects the level of ambition and the types of gender equality objectives set by policymakers and implementers.

Some design features can have unintended consequences and risk perpetuating gender norms that prevent women from achieving full economic participation and decent work in their communities. Other features that do not reflect gender dynamics can fail to appropriately mitigate women’s and men’s risks. For instance, Palermo and Gavrilovic (2019) recount that while targeting cash transfer programmes to households with adolescents can be an important mechanism to adopt gender-specific objectives, some programmes that were not specifically targeted to achieve adolescent outcomes have proven positive spillovers to adolescents themselves. Even in the case of public works programmes, targeting at the individual or household level can make a difference for gender equality and women’s economic empowerment, as described by Chopra (2019) in the case of MGNREGA in India. However, even when women are the recipients of the social protection benefits, they may not have the necessary power and control over the resources to decide how to spend the income, as Myamba (2019) shows in the case of the Tanzania’s PSSN.

Outcome 3: Implementing gender-responsive social protection with gender in mind

Even when social protection programmes are designed with gender in mind, this does not always translate into actual implementation. Cases exist where social protection programmes are designed with gender-responsive work arrangements, but these are not respected in practice. For instance, MGNREGA in India was designed to provide crèches and childcare facilities close to the MGNREGA public works sites, in recognition of women’s burden of unpaid care and domestic work. However, research has found that in practice, crèches and childcare facilities are not implemented and many women decide to drop out and leave the MGNREGA programme – if they can afford not to work – because they have to look after their children (Chopra 2019).

Another example is the provision of social audit in social protection design, which aims to ensure that the voices, experiences, and concerns of women and men are accounted for as the programme rolls out. Yet, Chopra (2019) reports that the implementation of the representation of women in the social audit mechanisms in the MGNREGA programme in India does not follow through, with implications for women’s opportunity to benefit from their right to grievance, feedback, and participation more broadly.

Outcome 4: Integrated programming shows potential but not enough is known

Increasingly, evidence is showing that while positive effects have been achieved, cash transfer programmes alone could enhance their effectiveness through linkages with complementary interventions and services, such as health insurance or life-skills programmes. The literature on public works programmes also highlights how the lack of linkages to social care services and infrastructure can undermine the objectives of the programmes, by failing to overcome the various gendered constraints that women face. More research and better evaluations are needed to understand how programmes can be integrated, which design features matter most to achieve gender equality outcomes, and how social protection systems as a whole can work towards gender equality.

Outcome 5: Context matters: from political economy to crises

Social protection programmes of different kinds – from income transfer to services – are applied in different contexts where individuals face specific risks and vulnerabilities, including gendered risks. However, the application of these programmes must be tailored to the specificities of these settings, both in the design and in the implementation phases of social protection programmes. For instance, in settings where disasters are becoming more frequent, women are often likely to be among the population groups with least power, economic resources, and physical capacity. In humanitarian or conflict settings, women are also more likely to face restricted mobility and higher risk of violence, including sexual violence.

Adolescents are often a particularly vulnerable group in humanitarian settings, so social protection programmes must be age-sensitive, in addition to paying attention to gender dynamics, as well as socio-economic, environmental, and political circumstances. Jones (2019) points to the various age- and gender-specific vulnerabilities that adolescents face in humanitarian contexts and argues that social protection programmes—while only able to address selected vulnerabilities—can still play an important role in addressing other vulnerabilities through linkages and referrals to alternative services and programmes.

Various contributions in this think piece series stress how crucial it is for social protection programmes in emergency or humanitarian contexts to be designed with longer-term perspectives, which can both ensure sustainability of the programme itself and promote resilience building for individuals and households.