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Can social protection be a driver of gender equality?

14 Jan 2020
Can social protection be a driver of gender equality?
Social protection programmes have proven to be effective in fighting poverty in various dimensions, but the question remains as to how these same instruments can address other drivers of vulnerability, like gender inequality. Girls and women living in poverty face additional barriers which men and boys do not, driven by conservative social and gender norms and limited access to education and the workforce. As UNICEF Innocenti embarks on its new five-year research programme to begin to answer questions on gender-responsive and age sensitive social protection (GRASSP), we asked researchers and practitioners in the fields of gender and social protection to weigh in on research priorities. We received survey responses from 76 experts around the globe, from both the academic and policy-making spheres. They emphasized key evidence gaps and challenges relating to the gender-responsiveness of different types of social protection. Below, we highlight some of the key takeaways from the survey.

"Measure impact by sex and age” 

While there is limited evidence on the topic, respondents praised the rigour and quality of emerging research and initiatives. A crucial challenge to building the evidence base is the lack of sex- and age-disaggregated data from programmes. Without this, identifying the social protection policies that aid women’s empowerment and lead to gender-equality is no more than an educated guess.

"Optimise evaluations to pinpoint key mechanisms of change”

Respondents mentioned the lack of a well-constructed and detailed theory of change. Conducting more complex evaluations can aid learning, while using qualitative methods can better contextualise and help bridge gaps, particularly as results on gender-related outcomes are often mixed.

"Consensus on what is meant by ‘gender’

Respondents noted a lack of consensus on what gender and gender-responsiveness entail, with some being critical of the field for having a narrow view of gender as a ‘women-only’ issue, undermining the crucial relational aspect of gender inequality.

"Political buy-in is crucial but lacking”

A lack of commitment from policy makers and officials across all levels of government limits much-needed resources for evidence building. This lack of buy-in may be due to a narrow view of social protection as aimed exclusively at poverty-reduction and correlated outdated views of poverty. Others see this as a lack of commitment to gender equality itself, with decision-makers prioritising more short-term objectives and their own traditional values—or those of their community—instead.

"Better understanding of the role of gender norms is the number one evidence generation priority” 

Addressing gender norms and practices is high priority for 61% of respondents. While this goal must be placed at the centre of the gender-responsive agenda, we also need to better understand the limitations that this may place on ongoing social protection interventions. Women’s role within the household and their families, their limited access to the labour market (both formal and informal), and the need for contextual specificity were listed as priorities for easing a change in restrictive practices.

"Measure empowerment properly”

Empowerment was the second highest priority for respondents (59.3%). Some urged for the field to move beyond purely economic measures of empowerment and others emphasised the need to adequately balance empowerment with protection needs.

"Labour & childcare policies top social protection policy priorities”

Labour policies that help people find work (45.8%) and the availability of affordable childcare (40.7%) are the policy types that experts most believe we should better understand. These results underline the need to economically empower women, rather than reproduce current social conditions that bind many to unpaid care.

"Tailor design to context and integrate with existing services”

When asked about design features, ‘gender responsive work arrangements’ (e.g. adequate maternity leave) was the top evidence generation priority (67.8% high priority), followed by ‘prioritisation of linkages to productive, protective, and health services’ (57.6%). These results reflect the value placed on integrating social protection into broader government provision systems to improve efficacy and secure sustainability. The importance of context was reiterated, with some highlighting the need to better anticipate and minimise unintended consequences, such as conditionalities that may limit people’s capacity to work.
Priorities to address evidence gaps in gender outcomes.
What next? Together with a think piece series by leading experts in the field and an experts’ workshop, this survey has helped refine the GRASSP research programme. In better understanding gender inequality as a driver of vulnerability and poverty for women, we can explore whether particular social protection features can be finetuned to achieve gender-transformative goals. This survey of experts reveals that we need to better understand local gender norms and how labour and childcare policies improve women’s access to the workforce and overall empowerment. To do so, we must disaggregate impact by sex, use qualitative research to illuminate change, and focus our evidence generation efforts on gender norms and empowerment.   Alessandra Ipince is now a research consultant working on adolescence, internet use, research methods at UNICEF Innocenti. UNICEF Innocenti’s new research programme on gender-responsive and age sensitive social protection (GRASSP) is funded by DFID, the Italian government, and other core UNICEF partners.