Logo UNICEF Innocenti
Office of Research-Innocenti
menu icon

Setting a clear ambition: a first step towards gender-responsive social protection

Mazhar Siraj, Department for International Development
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.

Mazhar Siraj, Department for International Development

Investment and interest in social protection is rising exponentially across low- and middle-income countries. Global estimates suggest that around 45% of the world’s population has access to at least one social protection benefit. The number of developing countries with social transfer schemes has doubled in the last two decades from 72 to 149. This coverage is inadequate relative to the large proportions of poor and vulnerable populations of Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, but it throws spotlight on the expanse of mechanisms being used to deliver social protection across a wide range of sectors, locations, and social groups. This growth is accompanied by a massive interest in using social protection mechanisms to advance gender equality objectives.

A substantial body of evidence exists on positive impacts of social transfers, family allowances, subsidised food and services, and graduation interventions on consumption, human development, economic opportunities, and reduction of monetary poverty. Evidence on gender-related outcomes is uneven but convincing. Cash transfers reduce demand-side barriers and lead to increases in school enrolment, particularly for girls, and use of preventative health, and health monitoring for children and pregnant women in many countries. In Pakistan, the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) has reduced wasting among girls and contributed to bridging the gender gap in civic registration. In Brazil, Bolsa Familia social transfers increased the participation rate of women in the labour market by 16%. Effects are typically larger in low-income countries with lower baseline levels. There is considerable variation in the gender-related design features of social protection programmes, but all programmes have had intended and unintended effects on women and gender relations.

A key issue facing practitioners is how to leverage consistent and better gender outcomes in social safety nets and other forms of social protection. In theory, this is achievable if a programme recognises and responds to gender-specific differences in basic needs, deprivations, risks and vulnerabilities at different stages of the life cycle. Other factors such as age, location, ethnicity, disability, and social biases compound the differences and reinforce disparities. A well-designed gender-responsive social protection programme considers the dynamics of gender-based differences and their intended and unintended consequences to inform objectives, target group, eligibility, benefits, geographical coverage, scale, and delivery systems.

Gender is an important dimension of exclusion along with ethnicity, HIV status, geographic location, and disability status, and shapes the vulnerabilities of children and their families. In practice, however, the extent to which gender has been integrated into social protection approaches has been uneven at best; there is a substantial disconnect between gender equality and empowerment goals on the one hand and social protection objectives on the other. Many social protection programmes remain vague or are content initially with simply targeting women or girls. Lack of a clear and explicit intent is part of the problem. The purpose of this brief is to stimulate thinking for a clear ambition in new and existing social protection programmes. Ambition is a dynamic concept and can evolve over time. It can be expressed in the form of a standalone statement or elements of this statement may be integrated into impact, outcomes, or outputs.

Levels of ambition for gender-responsive social protection: INCOT Band

A clear ambition is necessary for galvanising political will and making informed programme choices for leveraging sustainable results for children and women and girls. This involves answering basic questions like: What do we want a programme to achieve or contribute to in respect of gender equality goals? Are we content with a gender-blind design? Do we want a programme to stick to the “do no harm” principle only and stay away from proactively promoting development and empowerment? Or do we want social protection mechanisms to transform the lives of women and girls and tackle some of the root causes of gender-based discrimination, poverty, and social inequality?


There are multiple levels of ambition for gender-responsive social protection depending on breadth and depth of intended results. A schematic presentation of these levels is summarised in INCOT band (Figure 1) followed by a brief explanation along with some examples. There is some overlap with Sabates-Wheeler and Devereux’s useful spectrum of protective, preventive, promotive, and transformative social protection. For example, the protective and preventive forms overlap with Level 1 and 2, promotive with Level 3, and transformative with Level 4. The spectrum distinguishes forms of social protection based on functional objective whereas the INCOT levels are defined on the basis of both functional objective as well as depth and breadth of gender-specific differences considered.

Level 0: Indifferent

A programme is gender-indifferent if there is no explicit intent for considering and responding to any differential needs and risks of men and women. There is no appetite for adapting the scope, target group, eligibility, benefits, and delivery systems accordingly and monitoring impacts and risks on this basis. In consequence, there are no requirements for gender analysis or tailoring of operational systems.

In both theory and practice, it is possible for a social protection programme to remain indifferent. Holmes and Jones noted that gender dimensions were ignored altogether, for example, in Indonesia’s Raskin Rice Subsidy programme and Viet Nam’s National Targeted Programme for Poverty Reduction. However, it is likely for a gender-indifferent programme to graduate to higher and more gender-sensitive levels over time. Ambition is a dynamic concept and may change over time because operational challenges and impacts of transfers cannot be understood well without regard to gender-based risks and influences. Unintended gender impacts are still possible even in absence of a clear ambition.

Level 1: No harm

This is the minimum threshold of an explicit ambition for gender equality results in social protection. It applies to programmes which do not proactively design target group and benefit structure based on gender-specific differences but intend to safeguard against unintended harmful and negative impacts such as physical and sexual abuse and violence, especially in relation to children, women, and girls. This requires adoption of a gender-sensitive monitoring and evaluation approach and an appetite for adaptations to minimise harm.

Social protection may decrease or increase exposure to abuse, violence, or other negative impacts, especially on children, women, and girls due to their age and gender-specific vulnerabilities. For example, public works programmes may increase stress levels and time poverty of women by incentivising them to engage in productive work, but without re-allocating intra-household division of childcare and chores. Research on this dimension is increasing. A review of impacts undertaken by Bastagli et. al. found strong evidence of a reduction in domestic violence for female recipients of conditional cash transfers. The review noted that transfers tend to increase women’s decision-making power and reduce physical abuse but in some cases these impacts were accompanied by increased non-physical abuse, such as emotional abuse or controlling behaviour, by male partners.

Level 2: Cope

This level denotes an explicit ambition for tailoring the programme design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation to achieve gender-equitable outcomes. However, the ambition is only limited to helping women and girls cope with consequences of poverty, meet basic needs, or protect themselves against shocks in the immediate and short to medium term; there are no considerations for bridging the gender gap in social, economic, and political development, or for tackling the root causes of inequality.

Income support programmes and transfers in development and humanitarian contexts that consider gender differences in some breadth and depth fall into this category. The primary purpose of such programmes is to supplement a family’s income for consumption smoothing, but in some cases, they choose women as their target group. However, unintended impacts may occur in a wide range of sectors, especially in the case of unconditional cash transfers, as families can use the transfers for purchasing a variety of goods as well as services.

Level 3: Opportunity

This level represents an ambition for promoting gender-equitable access to opportunities and reducing disparities between men and women: education, health, nutrition, employment, etc. The focus is on tackling demand-side constraints and conditioning or nudging behaviours to bridge the gender gap in the uptake of development opportunities. This level requires a deeper analysis of drivers of poverty and social exclusion in relevant sectors, and tailoring of scope, target group, eligibility, benefits, geographical coverage, and delivery systems.

Conditional cash transfers, public works programmes, graduation, and asset transfers fall into this category if they differentiate how demand-side barriers and constraints differ for men and women in accessing social and economic opportunities. In low- and middle-income countries, such programmes are the dominant form of social protection. Bastagli et. al. have documented positive impacts on school enrolment and attendance of girls and use of maternal health services in social protection programmes.

Level 4: Transform

This is the highest level of ambition for a gender-responsive social protection programme and indicates an explicit intent for adopting a holistic approach for tackling constraints that prevent women and girls from realising their full potential at different stages of the life cycle. A gender-transformative programme thoroughly considers gender-specific characteristics and differences in needs, risks, and vulnerabilities, and adapts approaches accordingly. It does not preclude social protection for coping or opportunity, but has additional focus on social norms, gender relations, enabling environment, and the root causes of gender inequality. High level of complexity and a multi-pronged approach are therefore inevitable at this level.

Sabates-Wheeler and Devereux envisaged that transformative elements of social protection seek to address concerns of social equity and exclusion through social empowerment, e.g. collective action for workers’ rights, building voice and authority in decision-making for women. If the ambition is for social protection mechanisms to transform the lives of women and girls, they need to tackle a wide range of gendered social and economic risks and behaviours, e.g. early marriage, intra-household relations between men and women, mobility constraints, etc. Classifying any of the existing programmes as transformative is out of the remit of this brief but it is worth a mention that elements are present in varying degrees in some existing programmes. The Juntos programme in Peru, for example, has positively influenced unequal power imbalances and division of labour within the household through linkages to complementary programmes and services.


There are some dimensions related to the INCOT levels which are not discussed here. What are the factors behind an uneven progress in the integration of gender in social protection? What types of gender-based characteristics and differences matter most in social protection approaches and how do they relate to each other? Is it possible to define elements of a level of ambition in more discrete terms? What kind of analysis and adaptations will be needed to translate an ambition into practice at a given INCOT level? What are the key drivers of evolution of ambition for gender-responsiveness? Can social protection mechanisms work well with all levels of ambition in any sector? These are important questions that need in-depth analysis and preparation of detailed practical guides and procedures. The value of INCOT band, as it is outlined in this brief, is to encourage a debate on the need for an explicit ambition, and guide thinking toward a vision for gender-equality trajectory of social protection programmes at a high level.

Another dimension pertains to the progressive nature of the INCOT levels. Many social protection programmes are designed to have multiple first- and second-order objectives, tackling different needs and risks. Therefore, a single social protection programme may include sub-programmes or elements that cut across more than one level, or contrariwise do not include elements of a lower level. For example, it is possible for a programme to focus on coping (Level 3) or opportunity (Level 4) but without attention to the principle of “do no harm” (Level 1). In this scenario, a level may be defined according to the dominant element of ambition or preference given to highest applicable level. While there is a great degree of logical progression, these levels might not be mutually exclusive in some cases. Reality is more complex than these levels tend to suggest.


There is significant variation in the extent to which gender has been integrated into social protection programmes. Intent of policymakers and implementers for desirable gender results is generally vague or limited to targeting women only. Setting a clear ambition is a first and vital step towards catalysing political will, leveraging resources, and harnessing the scope of social protection for larger and better gender outcomes. The nature and depth of analysis needed at different stages of the programme cycle and corresponding adaptations in scope, target group, benefits, location, and delivery systems follow the ambition, which itself is not static and can evolve over time. There are multiple levels of ambition depending on what we want a programme to achieve. The INCOT band guides thinking for framing ambition at five levels: indifferent, no-harm, cope, opportunity, and transform. These levels can be used in designing a new programme or sense-checking where an existing programme lies on a scale in terms of breadth and depth of gender-specific characteristics and differences considered.

Download the bibliography