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Reducing poverty while achieving gender equality: the potential of social protection

28 Jan 2020
Reducing poverty while achieving gender equality: the potential of social protection

By Ramya Subrahmanian, Dominic Richardson

The UNICEF Office of Research—Innocenti has launched a new four-year research programme called Gender-Responsive and Age-Sensitive Social Protection (GRASSP), funded by the United Kingdom’s Department of International Development (DFID), and other partners. The research programme will examine how gender-responsive and age-sensitive social protection can reduce poverty and achieve gender equality sustainably. It will also examine how social protection can better address and prevent stubborn vulnerabilities and inequalities experienced by people simply because of their sex or age.

Why GRASSP matters now?

The timing of this work could not be more opportune. In 2020 the SDGs enter a decade of acceleration toward the lofty goal of leaving no one behind. Among the many targets we find: end all forms of poverty everywhere (Goal 1), achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls (Goal 5), and empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all—irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion, or economic or other status (Target 10.2). Five years ago, when the SDGs were launched, the UN General Assembly pledged that steps to ‘follow up and review’ these goals would be ‘evidence informed.’ With ten years to go, and more evidence to build, the GRASSP research programme is well-placed to support these ambitions.

GRASSP also begins in a landmark year for other international commitments on gender equality, poverty reduction, and social protection. The 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action at the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995) will be a time for reflection on how Governments have delivered on their commitments to advance the goals of equality, development, and peace for all women, everywhere. The Commission on the Status of Women in March will review and appraise the progress made since, including assessing current challenges affecting implementation.

2020 also marks a year for action as the Economic and Social Council (ESC) called on all States to undertake comprehensive national-level reviews of progress made and challenges encountered since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration. Specifically, the ESC is encouraging UN Regional Commissions to feed into a global review, and has urged national governments to collaborate in this process with all relevant stakeholders—including civil society organizations, community leaders, the private sector, United Nations entities, and academia—so as to benefit from their experience and expertise.

What the evidence does not yet tell us?

It is clear that international bodies and national governments are using evidence to strengthen their initiatives and ambitions for achieving gender equity, as well as reducing poverty and vulnerability in a gender and age-sensitive way. This leads to the question, ‘what does the evidence tell us and what do we not yet know?’

During the inception phase for GRASSP, which ran through late 2018 and 2019, the research team at Innocenti compiled a wealth of evidence on gender inequalities. This evidence highlights the unequal burden of poverty on women and girls, how women are lagging behind on labour market outcomes, and the impact of many other adverse socio-economic outcomes, including unequal responsibility for care and domestic work. Across 11 expert think pieces, further evidence shows how social protection can have intended and unintended positive effects on development outcomes, often for women and girls. There is also evidence on how social protection policy design and implementation can be considered more or less gender-sensitive along a gender integration continuum.

Despite this learning, much of the evidence, as yet, does not explore the impact of age, when adolescent girls may be direct or indirect recipients of social protection. In order to break the inter-generational and interlinked cycles of gender disadvantage and inequality, we need to know more about these age-sensitive impacts across the life-course for women and girls, including which age groups benefit most from gender-responsive social protection, and how design and implementation can be tailored for them.

Implementation is another critical stage in the social protection delivery cycle where we don’t have much evidence. For example, are programmes being delivered in the way they were designed and  do they respond to women’s needs? There is limited evidence on the factors that influence the development of gender-responsive social protection systems, including the political economy needed for reform.

While evaluations show the positive effects of social protection, indicators used to assess the transformative potential of social protection are limited. We do not know enough about design and implementation features linked to both positive and negative effects. Furthermore, the role of bureaucrats and frontline workers in shaping outcomes on the ground is well-noted in feminist literature and brings an additional set of measures and opportunities for learning.

How will GRASSP fill these evidence gaps?

Over the next four years, GRASSP will fill some of these gaps by working across multiple regions and using a mix of research methods, to capitalize on this demand for evidence and to support action for gender-responsive and age-sensitive social protection. Three streams of work will:

  1. Reconceptualize the intersection of gender and social protection using a life-course lens, and review the existing literature using this approach;
  2. Evaluate the impacts and assess the role of design implementation features in social protection programmes to contribute to gender equality;
  3. Unpack the political economy and practicalities of public policy reform involving gender-responsive social protection.

GRASSP’s multi-country approach to research compares similar policies and programmes implemented in very different contexts. This improves understanding of the generalisability of good practices, and how these can be scaled within, and transferred between, countries with gender-responsive and age-sensitive social protection. The mix of quantitative and qualitative research strategies allows us to not only to understand the incidence and pervasiveness of gender inequalities (and the programmes to address these), but also the lived experiences of individuals, households, policymakers, and other stakeholders either receiving or delivering these policies.

GRASSP is a multi-stakeholder partnership between UNICEF country offices, national Governments, universities, international organisations, and donors. This collaboration exploits synergies to advance the gender-responsive social protection research agenda through rigorous evidence to inform decision-making and stimulate debate, with the aim of putting gender equality at the forefront of social protection research, discourse, policy, and practice. We look forward to the work unfolding and engaging with many collaborators and interested researchers, advocates, practitioners, and policy makers as we go along!  


Dominic Richardson leads Social Policy and Economic Analysis at UNICEF Innocenti, where he oversees work on cash transfers in sub-Saharan Africa, multiple overlapping deprivation analysis, the Innocenti Report Card Series, and research on family policies and child well-being.

Ramya Subrahmanian is Chief of Child Rights and Protection at UNICEF-Innocenti, where she oversees work on migration, violence against children, and child protection.

Explore UNICEF Innocenti’s work on Gender-Responsive and Age-Sensitive Social Protection. Read 11 think pieces by gender and social protection experts written to stimulate discussion on the topic.