By Shahra Razavi, Chief of Research and Data, UN Women
Gender-responsive social protection systems have been very effective in mitigating the inequalities generated by markets. Take the case of work-related benefits, such as maternity and parental leave and sickness and unemployment benefits. Thanks to these transfers, the gender gap in disposable incomes in a range of high- and middle-income countries becomes much smaller than the gap in market incomes, while affordable childcare services have been pivotal in giving women, especially mothers, a foothold in the labour market.
Globally, however, only 41% of mothers with newborns receive a maternity benefit, with coverage rates as low as 16% in Africa. Widespread labour market informality is at the root of this exclusion. Yet, in Chile, Costa Rica and South Africa, social insurance-based leave schemes have been extended to cover informal wage workers, such as domestic workers and seasonal agricultural labourers. Mongolia provides an interesting combination of contributory and non-contributory benefits, including maternity cash benefits to all pregnant women and mothers of infants regardless of their contribution to the social insurance scheme, employment status or nationality. In recent decades, child- and family-related allowances have also gained traction in developing countries. Their aim is to offset some of the costs of raising children while promoting basic income security and investing in children’s capabilities. Such schemes mostly target mothers on the premise that women are more likely than men to prioritise child-oriented spending.
Because women face significantly elevated poverty risks during their prime reproductive years (25-34 years), these cash transfers constitute potentially critical interventions. Indeed, on the positive side, they have been associated with a range of favourable outcomes in terms of children’s school attendance, health service use and reduction in child labour. Such gains notwithstanding, cash transfer schemes have their downsides and blind-spots when it comes to women and their rights.
A major concern is the narrow frame of the ‘means tests’ routinely used to ensure that transfers are targeted to the poorest families. Far from living up to this promise, a comparison of social protection schemes across a range of developing countries shows that the more narrowly a program is targeted, the greater the population of poor people that is excluded. A recent study also finds that, on average, about three-quarters of underweight women and undernourished children were not found in the poorest quintile that is usually targeted for assistance. This means that on top of their opaque methods and considerable administrative costs, narrowly targeted social protection schemes are also likely to miss most of the women and children they intend to reach because they may be ‘hidden’ within non-poor households.
Another concern that vexes many feminists relates to the paternalistic conditionalities often attached to cash transfer schemes. These require children to attend regular health checks or mothers to attend hygiene and nutrition sessions, for example. To date, no evidence is conclusive to show that conditionalities per se create positive outcomes in terms of child health and nutrition, as opposed to the simple injection of cash into the household. Adding insult to injury, the expectation that conditionalities have to be fulfilled by mothers not only has reinforced gender stereotypes about care work (as a maternal duty), but also intensified the workloads of women who are already time-pressed, sometimes at the expense of paid work and opportunities for training and education. Rather than reflecting negligence, failure to comply with programme requirements is often because the services that beneficiaries are required to use are either inaccessible or of poor quality, or because women face other hurdles in accessing them, such as language barriers in the case of indigenous populations.
Cash transfers thus need to be bolstered by investments in public services — such as healthcare and childcare — and time-saving infrastructure — such as affordable and safe transport, water and sanitation — if they are to meet their own stated objectives (strengthening children’s capabilities) and expand women’s opportunities to earn an income of their own, while reducing and redistributing their unpaid care and domestic work. These two objectives are in fact inextricably linked. Achieving both requires investment in physical and social infrastructure, and attention to the cultural construction of care.
This year’s United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW-63) that meets in New York between 11 and 22 March has chosen to focus on social protection systems, public services and sustainable infrastructure as its priority theme. Investments in these three areas need to be made in tandem if they are to become a true springboard, rather than a hindrance, to women’s rights. This means removing punitive conditionalities and broadening and universalising the reach of social protection transfers by combining both contributory and non-contributory systems. It also means investing in care services and infrastructure so as to strengthen women’s connections to jobs and livelihoods and enhance their right to an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families.