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Unleashing the Potential of Social Protection for Adolescent Girls and Women

14 Mar 2019
Unleashing the Potential of Social Protection for Adolescent Girls and Women

By Prerna Banati, Elena Camilletti, Nicola Jones, Roopa Hinton, Shreyasi Jha, Muriel Kahane, Atif Khurshid

On March 12th 2019, UNICEF will co-host a side event to the sixty-third Commission on the Status of Women, together with the UK’s Department for International Development and GAGE Consortium managed by ODI, to share evidence and policy approaches to strengthen gender equality outcomes of social protection programmes, with a particular focus on adolescents and the safe transition to adulthood. Well-designed social protection can address risks and vulnerabilities across the life-course for girls and women, yet so often gender and age inequalities are not considered in social protection systems. Social protection is failing to deliver on this potential – missing the opportunity to benefit the most marginalized girls and women and risks widening inequalities even further. More work and investment is needed to make gender- and adolescent-responsive social protection a reality.

Life-course risks and vulnerabilities are influenced by gender

Women and girls face multiple barriers throughout their lives, such as limited access to basic services in education, health and nutrition; limited resources and assets including land and finance; and limited economic, social and political opportunities. Because they lack equal access to resources and assets, women and girls are less able to fully develop their capabilities, and ability to manage and mitigate the effects of risks and vulnerabilities. Women and girls face specific risks in different stages of their lives – adolescence, pregnancy and child birth – that are related to their biological sex as well as to entrenched gender norms that discriminate against them in diverse ways. For instance, more women and girls die before birth, in childhood, and during reproductive years than men and boys. Women and girls shoulder the greatest responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work – amounting to around 2.5 times more time than men. This limits their opportunities to access an education and take on paid work, and makes them more vulnerable to the impacts of poverty. This unpaid care and domestic work differentials between females and males start early in the life course and persist throughout their lives. This unpaid care and domestic work differentials between females and males start early in the life course and persist throughout their lives. Globally girls aged five to nine engage in household chores for an average of almost four hours per week, while girls aged ten to 14 years old spend around nine hours per week
Unpaid care and domestic work among adolescents: staggering statistics
  Girls under 15 spend 550 million hours every day on household chores, 160 million more hours than boys  Girls 10-14 spend 50% more of their time on household chores than boysOf children performing household chores for 21 hours or more per week are girls

Adolescence is a transformative period to address gender inequalities and break cycles of life-course and intergenerational transmission of inequalities

Adolescence is a period of life during which transformative change can be accelerated, and more equitable outcomes can be achieved for both girls and boys. It is a profound period of biological and psychosocial development when gender dynamics, relations, beliefs and norms consolidate for life. While children discover their gender and sexuality in their first years of life, it is during puberty and adolescence that gender starts to play a more defining role in their lives. Differentiations between females and males start to widen and become more entrenched, particularly roles within households, and in their relations with family members, peers and in their intimate communities. Yet adolescence is a formative stage of life, and interventions have shown to have an effect on modifying behaviours and outcomes, making this period a unique one for intervening through programmes and policies.vii Recent studies, including from low- and middle-income countries, suggest that this period could be a second window of opportunity in the life-course – where there is the opportunity not only to catch up and redress earlier negative experiences, but also to ensure that previous investments are not lost when children enter adolescence and face new risks and vulnerabilities. Tapping on this window of opportunity is particularly important - there are 1.2 billion adolescents worldwide, of which 90 percent live in low- and middle-income services, at risk of poverty, exclusion and vulnerabilities.

Evidence demonstrates positive impacts of social protection programmes on adolescent well-being

Evidence suggests that social protection systems  play a crucial role in lifting children and adolescents out of poverty and improving their well-being. These programmes can act as buffers against shocks, minimizing use of negative coping strategies such as withdrawing children from schools, sending them to work, or selling productive assets such as livestock. Governments have recognised this potential, and in the past two decades, many countries across Asia and the Pacific, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East, have designed or expanded social protection programmes to families with children. Many of these programmes have been cash transfers to families with children, either unconditional or conditional onto certain behaviours such as school enrolment or attendance and visits to health centres for check-ups. Some countries have also established a path of progressive universalization of cash transfers, such as Argentina ix. Evaluations of these programmes have shown some positive results – ranging from school enrolment or even attendance, improved nutrition, reduced risky behaviours such as unsafe sex, multiple partners and early sexual debut for girls. For instance, the Zomba cash transfer in Malawi, which targeted girls aged 13-22 for two years, showed strong impacts on school participation by facilitating girls returning to school, as well as reducing early marriages and pregnancies, reducing risky sexual behaviours and HIV infection – although all these positive impacts lasted only for the short-to-medium term. The Malawi Social Cash Transfer Programme and the Zambia Multiple Category Targeted Grant, both government-run unconditional cash transfers targeted to ultra-poor, rural and labour-constrained households, have also demonstrated reductions in poverty and improved schooling outcomes among youth, although no effects on early unions or teen pregnancy were demonstrated. Despite this expansion, only 35 percent of children or adolescents on average across the globe have access to any form of social protection. And there are significant regional disparities: 87 per cent of children in Europe and Central Asia and 66 per cent in the Americas receive benefits; however only 28 per cent of children in Asia and the Pacific and 16 per cent in Africa.

A gender and life-cycle lens is needed to strengthen social protection programmes to improve adolescent well-being

Many programmes are not designed with gender dynamics in mind and others are either targeted at younger children, or at adult women and households more generally. Research in eight countries between 2009 and 2012 found very little or no attention to gender considerations in most social protection programmes. While some studies have found that cash transfers can have a positive impact on women’s economic empowerment by increasing women’s economic participation, few studies have systematically assessed the influence of design features on gender outcomes. Moreover many programmes, by identifying women as the transfer recipients, either as beneficiaries themselves or on behalf of their children, have at times unwittingly perpetuated the stereotype of women as primary caregivers. Among the few adolescent-targeted social protection programmes that have tackled child marriage as a primary objective, there is limited efficacy and sometimes even unintended negative effects. And in the case of humanitarian and conflict-affected contexts, while the risks of child marriage and coerced transactional sex are high, we also have very limited evidence on the efficacy of social protection programming. The absence of both gender and adolescent-responsive approaches creates a gap in adequate coverage throughout the life-cycle and across a range of risks, compounding vulnerabilities, increasing exclusion and perpetuating cycles of inequity. Much promise exists in new approaches to respond to adolescent and gender vulnerabilities by looking at social protection in conjunction with other social and economic policies, including infrastructure, health systems, education systems, and labour market systems.
This article was written by Prerna Banati, UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti, Elena Camilletti, UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti, Roopa Hinton, UK Department for International Development (DfID), Shreyasi Jha, UNICEF Programme Division, Nicola Jones, ODI-GAGE, Muriel Kahane, ODI-GAGE, Atif Khurshid, UNICEF Programme Division. Read more about the event.