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Gender and social protection in South Asia. An assessment of non-contributory programmes

Raquel Tebaldi and Charlotte Bilo, International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth
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.

Raquel Tebaldi and Charlotte BiloInternational Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth

Social protection has received increased attention as a measure to reduce poverty and vulnerability and achieve social transformation, including the reduction of gender inequality. As put forward by the Social Protection Inter-Agency Cooperation Board (SPIAC-B), in order to contribute to gender equality, social protection systems should address life cycle risks, increase access to services and sustainable infrastructure, and promote women’s and girls’ economic empowerment, voice, and agency.

Although South Asia has made remarkable progress in terms of human development in recent years, the region still faces significant gender disparities. Discriminatory social norms and structural factors result in a neglect of girls and women’s rights throughout all areas of life. As a consequence, girls and women continue to face serious challenges in terms of health, nutrition, education and employment. Harmful gender norms also manifest themselves in women’s risk to early and forced marriage and gender-based violence. Therefore, social protection systems that respond to these risks are of utmost importance in the region.

Against this background, the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG) and UNICEF’s Regional Office for South Asia have partnered to analyse the extent to which South Asia’s non-contributory social protection programmes have been designed in a gender-sensitive way. A total of 50 programmes were analysed across the eight countries in the region: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. In addition, the aim of the research was to review the evidence regarding the programmes’ impact on gender outcomes and norms. This think piece is based on the report ‘Gender and social protection in South Asia: an assessment of the design of non-contributory programmes’ and summarises its main findings.


The assessment of the programmes’ design features was based on information publicly available in English, including government websites, programme manuals, and reports published by third parties. For the criteria it was drawn on the most up-to-date toolkits and guidelines produced by international organisations, such as FAO, UN Women, ODI, and the IPC-IG.

The following questions were addressed for each individual programme:

  • Are gender equality issues or awareness of gender-based vulnerabilities reflected in the programme’s objectives? If yes, which?
  • Are gender- and age-specific vulnerabilities taken into account in the targeting process?
  • Have specific outreach and/or communication activities been conducted to reach particularly vulnerable groups and inform citizens about the programme?
  • Which delivery mechanisms are used?
  • Are complementary services (related to health, education or nutrition) or trainings offered?
  • Does the programme collect gender-disaggregated data (e.g. number of male/female beneficiaries)?
  • Are gender-related outcomes evaluated by the programme? 
  • Does the programme rely on community monitoring or social audits?
  • Is a grievance redress mechanism available?

For cash transfer programmes:

  • Are conditionalities part of the programme? If yes, which and are there any attempts made to avoid possible negative impacts of conditionalities (e.g. through the use of soft conditionalities)?
  • Who is the main benefit recipient (mother, head of household, guardian/caregiver)?

For public works programmes:

  • Are quotas for women’s participation used? Is the allocation of less physically intense tasks possible for women or for vulnerable groups?
  • Are childcare and/or breastfeeding facilities and breaks or flexible work hours offered?
  • Are there provisions for equal pay?
  • Are there incentives for women to take on leadership roles?
  • Do women participate in the decision over community assets to be built, or is there a prioritisation of assets that directly meet their needs?

For school feeding programmes:

  • Are incentives provided for girls’ participation (e.g. take-home ratios for girls)?
  • Are women involved in the programme? If yes, how (e.g. as cookers)?

In some cases, these criteria could not be assessed due to lack of information, constituting an important limitation. Another limitation of this research is that only documents in English were reviewed, yet important documents, such as programme manuals, are often only available in the country’s official languages. Lastly, this research is limited to the programmes’ design and does not include an evaluation of their implementation.

The review of the programmes’ gender-related impacts was restricted to experimental and quasi-experimental impact evaluations with gender-disaggregated results and/or with specific analysis of gender-related outcomes, including indicators related to health, education, and empowerment, as well as gender norms. The search was conducted within three weeks (between 22 January and 12 February 2019) using Google Scholar, as well as PEP and 3IE databases.

Key findings

Programme objectives generally did not include specific gender considerations. Where they did, they are commonly related to barriers to education, maternity health, income-related risks, or the vulnerabilities of single and widowed women. However, only limited evidence of significant follow-up on progress in these areas was found in the monitoring and evaluation mechanisms of these programmes.

Most countries have programmes that either target or prioritise women in general (including female-headed households), or pregnant women, mothers, widows and single women specifically. Few programmes were found to explicitly target adolescent girls, presenting a major gap given the particular vulnerabilities of this group. Some programmes were also found to have provisions for outreach and communication activities. Nonetheless, the assessment showed that there are still significant barriers to be addressed in people’s awareness of their right to social protection. Moreover, a variety of payment mechanisms is used to deliver social protection benefits in the region, including banks, mobile payments and post offices. Existing assessments have shown that multi-layer and complex payment mechanisms can often increase women’s time burden. It is therefore important to carry out more in-depth assessments in order to understand the difficulties that beneficiaries may have in accessing their benefits. In some cases, complementary measures, such as financial literacy training, can present a good option to address existing challenges.

Where policies and programmes remain confined in their own sectors, there might be missed opportunities to address gender-based vulnerabilities. Regarding the provision of complementary services, it is important not to reinforce gender roles through them by also including fathers in activities related to child nutrition awareness, for instance. This has rarely been found to be the case in South Asia. Moreover, training in productive activities and skills development can be strengthened in order to promote women’s participation in the labour market. However, the assessment has also shown that it is important that these are adapted to the local context and beneficiaries’ needs.

Though most programmes were found to provide gender-disaggregated information on beneficiaries, monitoring and evaluation needs to be strengthened in order to understand the impact (whether positive or negative) that programmes have on gender outcomes, not only in terms of health, education, and nutrition, but also in terms of women’s empowerment and gender norms. Social accountability mechanisms, including social audits, community monitoring, and grievance redressal mechanisms also need to be improved, as there were many reports of malfunctioning. Moreover, little evidence was found on how complaints and suggestions actually feed back into programme reform, highlighting another important gap.

Looking specifically at cash transfers, it can be observed that many programmes are focused on maternity-related outcomes. The assessment showed that programmes that require pregnant women to have institutional deliveries can be more gender-sensitive if they incorporate the costs associated with transportation and also provide flexibility in terms of women’s choice to deliver at home, particularly where accessing the appropriate services might be too expensive or put women’s safety at risk. Moreover, it is important that these programmes are accompanied by robust grievance redressal systems that can capture women’s complaints and feed them back into the supply side.

In terms of public works programmes, much more can be done in order to ensure women’s participation in more equal terms. Quotas for women and vulnerable groups, provisions for equal wages, childcare, breastfeeding facilities and breaks, as well as flexible working hours are all measures that can be strengthened. Moreover, incentives for women to take on leadership roles and for women’s participation in the decision-making process regarding the building of community assets can also promote more positive gender outcomes.

School feeding programmes need to become more accountable in terms of women’s involvement in programme implementation. In the case of India, women were found to be the majority of cookers engaged in the programme (which was also established by design), but their work conditions are rather precarious. Moreover, the expectation that mothers will provide supervision in programme implementation without compensation risks putting more pressure on a group that is already overburdened with unpaid care work.

The review of impact evaluations, though with mixed impacts for several outcomes, has also demonstrated the potential for significant impacts in terms of gender equality of social protection programmes. Maternal health is an area where demand-side programmes have shown to increase service utilisation, however service quality also needs to be improved. Regarding food security, nutrition, education, and employment, findings point to rather heterogeneous impacts, which vary a lot depending on age and gender. It is important to ensure that the lessons learned from the growing body of evidence feeds back into programme design and implementation. Furthermore, very few studies looked specifically at programmes’ impacts on gender norms and attitudes, however, there is some promising evidence from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The inclusion of more qualitative evidence can help to gain a more nuanced understanding of how gender inequalities play out in different contexts.


Gender disparities remain high in the South Asia region, yet at the same time there is a growing recognition of the potential of social protection programmes, including for women’s empowerment. The research conducted has shown that despite some positive examples, governments in the region still have to invest significantly in order to make their social protection systems more gender-sensitive, and in turn advance gender equality in the region.

One of the key gaps identified relates to the lack of comprehensive grievance and complaints mechanisms, limiting women’s ability to make their voices heard and the possibilities of improving the programme. Another key gap relates to programmes' monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, which rarely focus on gender outcomes. The review has also shown the importance of conducting gender assessments prior to implementation, as they can be key in making social protection programmes more gender-sensitive by taking context specific vulnerabilities and needs into account.

Finally, while the design of programmes is the first step to make programmes more gender-sensitive, their implementation is likewise crucial. Therefore, more assessments should focus on programme implementation, which will be key for identifying gaps and informing policy reform.

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Based on Gender and social protection in South Asia: an assessment of the design of non-contributory programmes by the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG) and UNICEF’s Regional Office for South Asia.