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Elizabeth Koechlein and Mari Kangasniemi, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations

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.

Elizabeth Koechlein and Mari Kangasniemi, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations

736 million people were living in extreme poverty in 2015. Approximately 80% of the extreme poor reside in rural areas. The multidimensional vulnerabilities of the extreme poor are exacerbated by exposure to compounding risks such as climate change, natural disasters, economic and food chain crises, and conflict. Shocks that impact large numbers of people at once—covariate shocks—affect people differently across the lifecycle and based on their livelihoods, ages and gender and other social categorizations that affect roles and expectations. These characteristics shape experiences in preparing for, responding to, and coping with shocks. Gender defines the social roles, rights and responsibilities of men and women, and boys and girls, in relation to each other, and therefore has significant implications for individual capability to contend with risks.

Social protection (SP) is critical in rural areas for ensuring food security, fostering productive investments and livelihoods, enhancing capacity to manage lifecycle risks, smoothing consumption and ultimately contributing to lifting rural people out of poverty. Evidence from development contexts suggests systematically applying a gender lens to SP enhances empowerment outcomes for rural women and men. Not only is women’s agency and empowerment a human rights imperative, it also has implications for more sustainable poverty reduction, food security, and nutrition. Yet rural populations in general, and rural women and girls in particular, continue to lack sufficient coverage and access to SP. They face barriers to fully benefitting from SP programming, like limited intra-household bargaining power or excessive work burden.

At the same, the humanitarian system is increasingly under strain as disasters are more frequent and complex. SP is a policy tool that can be used to contribute to meeting immediate needs while “providing assistance that empowers and equips people to prepare for, withstand and bounce back from dire and complex situations”.  FAO, together with UNICEF, the World Food Programme (WFP), the World Bank and others, have identified “risk-informed and shock-responsive social protection (RISRSP)” as an innovative and scalable component of disaster response and preparedness with potential to enhance resilience. While SP instruments such as cash transfers have long been used in disaster response, RISRSP presents the opportunity to leverage SP systems, often led by governments, to enhance people’s resilience to covariate shocks, as well as smooth consumption following a shock and help them to build back resilient livelihoods. In both humanitarian response and in RISRSP, integrating a gender perspective is crucial for inclusive resilience.

Why a gender lens important in a crisis: examples

Gender equality and women’s empowerment are crucial for a broad array of development goals and for ensuring their own resilience, the resilience of their communities, and more sustainable peace. Yet women and girls are often disadvantaged. This is particularly true for rural women and girls who “fare worse than rural men and urban women and men for almost every indicator for which data are available”, despite making key contributions to food production, playing vital roles in the diversification of rural livelihoods, reducing food loss and waste, and making food systems more efficient, resilient and climate-smart. This is often compounded by other forms of oppression and marginalization which can vary by location and change over time and context.

Socially marginalized populations are least likely to have the power, economic resources, and physical capability needed during and after natural disasters. Where women’s socioeconomic status is low, natural disasters are likely to impact a greater proportion of women than men. This may be due to differential physical ability and gender norms, or reduced access to food, hygiene, health care, and clean water. Women may face mobility challenges related to social stigma and norms about men and women’s interaction, physical limitations due to pregnancy, care responsibilities, access to information, or resources and assistance.

In conflict settings, men between the ages of 15 to 44 generally constitute a greater proportion of violent war deaths while women and children make up around 80% of displaced persons and refugees globally. Women and children tend to have more exposure to certain  health effects of conflict, including infectious disease and malnutrition. Displacement can lead to significant asset loss, loss of social networks, and increased household poverty, both for those who are displaced and left behind. Among displaced populations, there is increased incidence of domestic violence as well as increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence and a lack of adequate sexual and reproductive health care.

In host countries with fewer restrictions on employment, displacement may offer opportunities for women and girls in the form of positive disruptions to traditional divisions of labour. In some settings, women and children may be left behind as men migrate in search of work. This often leads to increased work burden for women and girls but may also offer economic and leadership opportunities. These opportunities can only be fulfilled in an enabling environment for women’s social and economic empowerment.

Economic and food price crises can lead to sharp increases in poverty. The direct and indirect impacts of economic shocks are gendered due to gender differences in resources and labour prior to shocks. Coping strategies are also gendered due to social norms, unequal distribution of both private and public resources in response to crises, and unequal access to decision-making power from intra-household to national levels.  

Globally, women are more likely to be in vulnerable work or work in the informal sector. Women are also more likely than men to move from the formal to the informal sector than men during economic crises. Women’s heavy participation in informal employment and their lower wages mean that, in the case of job loss, women have less access to unemployment insurance and savings. The conditions of work for both women and men decline in economic crises as do workers’ rights. Rural women may take on off-farm paid labour and work longer hours to contribute to the household.

Gendered norms around “breadwinning” may affect men psychologically and socially when they become unemployed. These norms often mean that employers are more willing to fire women than men during economic downturns, though this varies by context and the sectors affected. During the 1997 Asian financial crisis, more Korean women than men dropped out of the labor force. In other contexts, women may increase their participation in the labour market to compensate for household income losses. During the peso crisis in Mexico in the 1990s, there was evidence of an added worker effect, with more women entering the labor market as their spouses lost jobs. Recovery programmes, such as public works, may also suffer from breadwinner bias, or may fail to consider the contributions of women’s unpaid labor.

Dramatic changes in commodity prices of food and fuel can send households and individuals into poverty. Price hikes hurt net consumers more than net producers, and the poor are most affected as they spend a larger share of their income on food. Female-headed households are among the poorest and tend to have high dependency ratios paired with low purchasing power due to fewer economic opportunities, lower educational levels, wage disparities, and other income insecurities. This makes them particularly vulnerable to food price increases.

In some cases, higher food prices may be an incentive for farm producers. However, this may not hold true for women farmers who tend to have less access to credit and information. Within the household, men and women may be responsible for different crops, with men often responsible for cash crops and women managing food crops consumed by the household. “To the extent that men are more involved in cash cropping than women or produce surpluses from food crops because of better access to resources, they are more able to expand their production and benefit from increases in food prices.”

Who delivers social protection?

The characteristics of social protection in a given place have implications for determining the most appropriate strategy for RISRSP or for the use of SP instruments in humanitarian response. SP systems can vary from non-existent in fragile contexts to mature, comprehensive, state-led systems of contributory and noncontributory programming and labour market regulation. Because shock-responsiveness in SP involves “scaling up” SP in response to shocks or stressors, in environments with very limited or non-existent institutional capacity to design and implement SP, there is also generally very little programming to begin with that can be used to “scale up” and little capacity to do so.

Thus, humanitarian emergency response delivered by humanitarian actors—including international organizations, and international, national and local NGOs, (sometimes in coordination with government)--is often the best option for mitigating the immediate effects of crises. Additionally, humanitarian response may be the most appropriate strategy for ensuring principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence in contexts in which the state may act in ways that harm affected populations. Finally, even in contexts in which the state may have a relatively robust social protection system, humanitarian response may still be necessary if the state lacks the ability to scale up social transfers to those who need it quickly.

Increasingly, humanitarian actors deliver assistance in the form of cash. Such cash-based interventions are often short-term and implemented in response to a shock, rather than in anticipation of one. However, in some cases, cash- and voucher- based interventions implemented by humanitarian actors may be designed to build longer term resilience or may contribute to the infrastructure underpinning later state-led SP programming in contexts where this was missing or limited prior to crises.

Some evidence suggests that responses to shocks are likely to be more effective if they are based on programmes and mechanisms that are in place before a crisis occurs. In contexts with an existing and comprehensive system, building in shock-responsiveness involves strengthening and expanding the SP system in a number of ways to respond to new needs in terms of coverage, adequacy of benefits, creating linkages to other policies and livelihood supports, and more. It may also involve scaling up in anticipation of shocks or stressors to reduce the likelihood that these shocks lead to a disaster.

A gender lens is important in all approaches to scaling up SP in response to shocks. This is clear in the evidence on gender and SP in development contexts and in the evidence on how gender shapes resilience and vulnerability. Although there is not much evidence yet on how the design and implementation of RISRSP can change the gendered impacts of shocks, there is some evidence related to gender and the use of SP instruments, such as public works programmes (PWPs) and cash transfers (CTs), by humanitarian actors in crisis contexts which can lend some insights into how to consider gender dimensions in RISRSP.

Gender-sensitive and humanitarian Social Protection programming

The evidence base on the impact of SP instruments in humanitarian settings has been slowly building since the early 2000s. Overall, most evidence on SP in humanitarian programming comes from programme evaluations and is inconsistent in terms of methods and quality. The literature cited in OPM finds beneficial impacts of CTs and in-kind support, as well as potential for subsidies or school feeding in shock response, especially in situations with limited institutional capacity. The following outlines select evidence from cash-based interventions and PWPs in humanitarian contexts, specifically related to aspects of emergencies that may heighten gender inequality (such as protection concerns) and programmes designed to build longer term resilience.

Protective: Addressing practical needs equitably

In general, there is little gender-disaggregated data available from humanitarian contexts. It is generally understood that when women control expenditure, health and child wellbeing are prioritized. Evidence suggests that CTs are generally associated with reductions in intimate partner violence (IPV) in development contexts, but attention to intra-household tensions is critical. In humanitarian contexts, CTs also tend to be associated with decreases in IPV through reductions in intra-household stress related to meeting household needs. It is important that careful planning and messaging correspond to transfers targeted to women to ensure that men understand why women have been targeted.

How aid is delivered also has gendered implications. Women can be limited in their access to CTs and vouchers by constraints on their mobility or a lack of identify cards. Because PWPs and cash for work (CFW) programmes target those who are able to work, they are likely to leave those who are most vulnerable behind or fail to account for the specific circumstances faced by marginalized people. Diversifying the work has the potential to include older people, people with disabilities, and other marginalized communities.

In the absence of clear evidence of relative efficiency and preferences, decisions regarding transfer types should be made based on gender-sensitive needs assessments and gender-sensitive market analysis. However, while in-kind transfers are still used in emergency contexts when essential goods are not available for purchase, the trend towards increased use of cash in emergencies is unlikely to be reversed as it contributes to the recovery of local markets and facilitates choice and dignity. Addressing the gender constraints of cash through complementary programming may be a more sustainable approach to overcoming the gender-related issues of women’s limited decision-making within the household. For example, women should be involved as ‘central actors’ in planning transfers for food assistance.

Predictable and timely cash transfers can provide income certainty and encourage beneficiaries to adopt new technologies, such as drought resistant crop varieties, to increase their preparedness in times of shocks and build resilient food production. However, this evidence should be carefully scrutinized from a gender perspective, as women often have less access to new technologies and may lack authority, information, or resources to apply new technologies and climate-smart farming practices.

Preventive: Strengthening the risk management capacity of rural women

In-kind and CTs can help smooth consumption in times of shocks. Informal and community-based SP may also reinforce women’s ability to manage risk through enhanced social capital, local collective action, and community groups. Evidence on humanitarian transfers made through self-help groups in Ethiopia link these transfers with increased access to loans and savings for women, similar to many of the outcomes from CTs made in development contexts. Labour organizations, producer groups, and self-help groups may help women and men during food and economic crises. Such groups may improve women’s bargaining power, though the covariate nature of widespread economic crises may limit the benefit of these groups.

Promotive outcomes: Improving women’s income-generation and employment

Greater impact is often seen when cash is supplemented with skills and capacity development activities to support resilience and adaptability. One such approach, “cash plus”, is “a flexible combination of CTs and productive assets, activities and inputs, and/or technical training and extension services”. Following emergencies, lump-sum transfers are sometimes used. However, it is important to note that lump sum payments can be gender-biased as women often face greater constraints in making productive investments than men. For example, in the absence of gender-sensitive rural advisory services, women may lack the same “experience and connections to make profitable investments”. Gender-responsive cash plus programming should be one part of a broader strategy for economic inclusion.

Transformative outcomes: Enhancing gender equality

CTs generally facilitate the dignity of recipients by promoting choice, but empowerment outcomes from cash, PWPs, and vouchers in humanitarian settings are often not researched. In the few cases where empowerment is measured, it has been found that inadequate transfer size and a lack of psychosocial services may prevent empowerment. Some modest gains in measures of women’s empowerment have been noted in less severe emergencies when women were able to access government services and were made aware of their rights as a part of programming.

Evaluations of long-term cash transfer programming in unstable contexts demonstrate that women tend to be included in decision-making about how money is spent. The limited evidence available suggests that cash transfers for resilience contribute to women’s improved decision-making power and more equitable allocation of food within the household by addressing unequal power relations, women’s lower status, and limited nutritional knowledge through transfers to women, particularly those with cash plus components that focus on nutrition interventions. Cash transfers directed to women can improve intra-household dynamics and shift consumption in ways that may benefit children and enhance nutrition and dietary diversity. .

Following the cease of hostilities, women often play crucial yet informal roles in the reintegration of ex-combatants. There is evidence that women’s empowerment and economic equality contribute to sustaining peace through their roles as leaders and agents of change in both formal and informal peacebuilding processes and in building resilient communities, yet women are often excluded from formal processes. The literature on gender in emergencies often highlights changing social roles for women due to crisis-related changes in household composition and public life. These changes may enhance women’s autonomy, decision-making power, or status within the community. However, there is little evidence that these changes endure. As SP programming seeks to link humanitarian and development efforts, short-term benefits for women from SP programming should be tied to longer-term community-driven transformational changes in gender relations.

Somalia: PWPs for longer-term recovery from complex crises

FAO has implemented CFW programming in Somalia since 2007. FAO’s July 2011 CFW famine response became the Social Safety Nets pillar of the Joint Resilience Strategy (JRS) between UNICEF, WFP, and FAO, which contributed to short-term consumption smoothing and showed potential to increase longer term resilience and employment options. Participants reported that CFW money was used to pay school fees, to re-stock livestock, repair houses, or buy seeds. However, it proved difficult to engage women. Women were either represented by male members of their family or given tasks such as cooking and brewing tea, and the lack of childcare remained a challenge. When women did not have a male family member to represent them, they were often excluded entirely.

In 2013, research conducted in Dollow to understand the gender dimensions of livelihoods found little evidence of gender mainstreaming in CFW programming. The findings and recommendations led to changes in the JRS which have been seen on the ground. In Beer village (Burao district), adjustments were made to women’s work hours and a short afternoon shift was introduced to accommodate women’s other responsibilities. Women were given priority for CFW opportunities near their villages to minimize travel time. Pregnant and lactating women could appoint someone to work on their behalf while retaining their right to collect wages. These steps increased women’s participation. Although many challenges and opportunities remain, this case illustrates the importance of gender analysis in designing SP programming and the possibility to mainstream gender in insecure and highly gender-segregated societies.

Gender and RISRSP Systems

Integrating a gender lens in RISRSP will entail leveraging what we know about gender-sensitive SP and what we know about the role of gender in resilience and vulnerability. It is also clear that much more research is needed to better understand good practices in RISRSP, as well as how gendered resilience and vulnerability interact with social protection programming.

Policymakers must ensure that: 1) the underlying national SP system is gender-sensitive; 2) the manner in which the SP programme scales-up is gender-sensitive; and 3) gender-sensitivity is maintained and adapted dynamically, including by ensuring that women are active agents in the design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation of SP programming. Ideally, attention to gender dynamics beyond protection and ensuring basic needs may contribute to the attainment of more strategic gender goals.  Although empowerment outcomes and transformative policy design often seem far out of reach in crisis contexts, these situations may offer opportunities for social change.

Ethiopia: The Productive Safety Net Programme and Cyclical Shocks

The Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) was created in 2005 by the Government of Ethiopia to address food insecurity through the distribution of cash or food and is now one of the largest SP programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa. Chronic food insecurity is addressed through regular transfers based on season and need, while contingency budgets and the Risk Financing Mechanism allow the PSNP to scale up during shocks that make food insecurity more extreme. PSNP also supports livelihoods through a PWP in which a member of a PSNP household must participate in productive activities that build resilience.

The PSNP targets women through a focus on women-headed households and engaging women in PWP and recognizes some gender-specific vulnerabilities such as time poverty, work burden, and physical capability through provisions to address these barriers. The assets created through the PWPs are often determined with gender in mind. These design features have fulfilled some practical needs for women and led to greater community respect through their work in PWPs. However, much remains to be done, including ensuring implementation of the gender-sensitive design features currently in place.

Despite gender-sensitive design features, a 2010 ODI analysis found that capacity development and awareness-raising were insufficient, and intra-household dynamics were not addressed. The fourth phase of the PSNP began in 2015 and runs through 2020. Context-specific attention to gendered risks and vulnerabilities in social assessments underpinning the design of this phase indicate an emphasis on addressing the issues of earlier phases of the PSNP, though sustainable outcomes in terms of securing women’s strategic needs and ensuring more transformational changes remain to be seen.

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