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Gendering Social Protection The Lessons for Africa

Gender Equality (SDG5) is one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the 193-member United Nations adopted in 2015. That same year, United Nations members pledged to vigorously chase pursue these goals until 2030. Globally, policymakers and citizens alike recognize that society values and views the lived experiences and efforts of men and women differently. Power, institutional structures, resources and opportunity favour men more than they do women—a position that is reflected strongly in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Report. These differences have resulted to inequity and deprivations for women as they adjust to reproductive roles; in addition to wide economic differences, harsh cultural expectations, life-cycle differences, rising environmental shocks and political instabilities, which further exacerbate their female poverty.

In 2018, Carolina Sánchez-Páramo and Ana Maria Munoz-Boudet noted that, statistically, for every 100 men within the age cohort of 25-34 years, 122 women within the same cohort are likely to suffer household poverty—as a result of childbearing and rearing, unpaid care, educational deficit, as well as skill and income disparity. The consequence of this is that women hold the peak position in the global population of the extreme poor.

As a remedy to the above situation, social protection programmes and policies, therefore, have become the go-to poverty reduction and inclusive development tools that are used to address these identified development failures and, in line with the SDGs, to help close these inequality gaps. Though developed and popularized by the global north, over the years, ‘social protection’ has become a prominent feature in the social and development affairs of the global south and middle and low-income countries. A 2015 World Bank report, The State of Social Safety Net, noted that 131 out of 157 countries have at least one form of social protection programme, while cash transfer—key components of social assistance under social protection which can be conditional or non-conditional—alone are present in 130 countries, with Africa harbouring 40 of the implementing countries. The popularity of cash transfers among countries came to be due to the efficacy attributed to addressing poverty and inequality over the years. From two countries in 1997 to 27 countries in 2008; as of 2010, cash transfer was present in 63 countries.

While these historical social investments in protection of the most vulnerable in the society which, in 2015, aggregated to $329 billion in 120 developing countries and 1.9 billion beneficiaries—are highly commendable, one cannot ignore that many of these initiatives are yet to holistically address the issue of the gendered poverty gap among men and women. Especially in Africa where high rates of teenage pregnancies have led to high girl-child school drop-out and huge income disparities between men and women. The gender poverty gap is further highlighted in the World Bank’s October 2019 Africa Pulse report, which showed that women-led businesses are 34 per cent less profitable than their male counterparts and women’s land rights and agricultural production are 33 per cent more restrained than men.

In reality, some of the social protection programmes and policies we know today were designed and implemented without taking into context the gendered experience of women in the society and the possible gendered impacts of these programmes among the beneficiaries. Such programmes have failed to produce the expected achievements in their inclusion and equity mandates and have failed to further propagate SDGs 1 and 5.

Gender Insensitivity, Social Protection and Women

Noting the importance of gender-sensitivity in the design and implementation of social protection programmes, Lisa Cameron, in her 2019 study, ‘Social Protection Programs for Women in Developing Countries’, summarized the risks and vulnerabilities inherent to women that most formal social protection programmes in developing countries fail to address as: the failure to protect women in their dispensation of reproductive roles and social norms. Breaking down these risks along the lifecycle, Cameron noted that as young adults, women face health risks associated with childbearing, employment insecurity because of pregnancy and child-rearing, loss of assets in divorce, lack of access to financial opportunities. In their middle-age, women are faced with elder care, social expenses of children marriage and other life events. At old age, widowhood is one of the leading life-cycle vulnerabilities that women are confronted with, which expose them to loss of assets to relatives of deceased husbands and inadequate income. These are examples of life-cycle nuances that social protections programmes fail to address in their design and implementation as a result of gender-insensitivity to women’s experiences.

The above-identified nuances and accompanied gender-insensitivity manifested in Mexico’s Oportunidades/Progresa/Prospera—a flagship targeted conditional cash transfer programme (and second most extensive in Latin America), instituted in 1997, with the aim of reducing poverty, improving education for minors, improving health access for mothers and minors and also nutrition for household members. Despite the grant’s best effort in design and implementation to empower women in low-income households and close the inequality gaps via: giving financial transfer to female heads, increasing girl stipend for school attendance by ten per cent more than boys, providing healthcare for pregnant women, and providing leadership and citizenship of subscribed women, it failed to consider the impact of time poverty (lack of time for paid jobs and leisure) on women beneficiaries. As a result, house-chores, unpaid care, domestic work and community work hampered on the time that ought to be used for the women’s income-generating activities. The cash transfer also made a case for making these women targets of domestic violence as a result of household power tussles between the husband and the wife around the household management of finance.

Similarly, in other social protection programmes (mostly conditional cash transfers) in Latin America—such as Brazil’s Bolsa Familia, Colombia’s Juntos Programme, Chile’s Solidario and Peru’s Juntos Programme—key observations were that these programmes did little in addressing the gender inequality inherent in Latin America’s labour market. This inequality has become a huge barrier to economic empowerment of women from that region. Also, these programmes failed to address the time poverty associated with unpaid care and domestic work, just like in Oportunidades.

Equally, across developing countries, the labour force in many of these countries has seen more women highly under-represented in formal labour but mostly present in informal labour sector that lacks social protection. This is as a result of the biological burden of child-birth, assigned social role as home-makers, being the gender mainly responsible for child-rearing, and labour discriminations. Eventually, all these factors have led to their drop-out in the formal labour force, with neither protection nor pension; further deepening their economic vulnerabilities.

In Africa

Among the popular forms of Social Protection in Africa are cash transfers, public works, school feeding programmes, and food aid. Most social protection programmes are implemented by governments and bankrolled by international donors, with the exception of a few such as the ones in South Africa. Thus, the donors in many of these social protection programmes insist on huge women representation in the coverage of beneficiaries as a way of closing the poverty and inequality gaps in the continent. However, this gendering effort has not been able to close the acute poverty gap among men and women on the continent. Rather, there seems to be an increase in systematic inequality and a reinforcement of poverty among the female gender as a result of these programmes – mostly emanating from gender blindness and lack of gender context in the design and implementation of these social protection programmes.

The South African Child Support Grant (CSG) is a means-tested post-1994 social assistance tool, instituted by the South African government to address food security in minors. Presently the CSG covers over 12 million beneficiaries, with a monthly ‘unconditional’ (said to be rights-based but caregivers are not paid when the minors, of school age, are not in school) cash transfer of R420 ($29) to low-income caregivers (mostly mothers). The CSG, nevertheless, perfectly encapsulates this gender context shortfall. A 2018 qualitative study among young black mothers in informal settlements in South Africa’s eThekwini Municipality, discovered that the state systematically excludes some of these rural and informal-housed women from accessing the grants.

According to the study, exclusion typically occurs as a result of stringent bureaucratic processes, the lack of identity card and other vital documents for both the caregiver and the child, long-distance from SASSA (the government implementing agency) offices, and humiliation from the government service providers (SASSA officials). The CSG failed to contextualize the social, cultural (as tradition abhors new mothers leaving their homes in the next few months after childbirth), and economic experiences of poor young mothers (as a result of their gender and motherhood status) in its design and implementation despite the CSG being an unconditional cash transfer that sought to make social protection rights-based and increase citizen enfranchisement.

Similarly, in Nigeria, the N-Power programme—an on-going, targeted public work programme for unemployed graduates in Nigeria—buttresses the unfortunate fact that in the design and implementation of some of these social protection programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa, actors do not sufficiently consider the realities (and vulnerable conditions) of beneficiaries from a gender perspective. For example, the locations of many of the workplaces assigned to the graduates are quite far from the homes of the beneficiaries, making the programme unattractive for unemployed and educated married women. These workplaces also lack childcare facilities for nursing mothers and typically do not offer paid maternity leave for lactating mothers.

The Current Imperatives: What We Need to Do

To gender social protection is to recognize the various barriers against each gender’s (women, especially) economic, social, cultural and political empowerment. It is also to provide for these barriers in the design and implementation of social protection policies and programmes. Social protection programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa like cash transfers can be gendered in their design by increasing the input of women. This can happen through partnership and stakeholder engagement, as well as through consultation between governments, representatives of marginalized groups, targeted beneficiaries, gender experts and gender-focused Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) with huge practice and experience.

NGOs in Africa have a broad depth of experience when it comes to marginalized communities. In public works, social protection can be gendered for increased participation of women in rural areas via legalizing employment guarantee schemes. An example of this practice is India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which covers more 45 million Indians, half of whom are women. These schemes should feature quotas and appropriate targeting, equal wages, the proximity of the workplace to home, provision of crèche at the workplace, and reduction of manual labour. And time poverty, which hinders women from participating in these programmes as a result of house chores, can be reduced through the construction of community assets such as firewood and water collection sources closer to the village, like in Ethiopia’s food security-focused Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP). Payment in food, instead of money, can also increase women’s participation in these programmes since women are the custodians of food in the family.

Another way social protections can be gendered is by securing the economic rights of these women in the workplace during their time of vulnerabilities through initiatives like making financial provisions for maternity leave. Provision of unemployment insurance for unemployed mothers, childcare provisions at the workplace, and child support grants, as in South Africa, should also be explored by other African countries in order to reduce the burden of child-rearing. Also, life-cycle vulnerabilities could be reduced by providing soft employment or direct support (with no work requirements) for late-stage pregnant women. Also, like Mexico’s Oportunidades CCT programme, more women should man the social protection programmes’ governance through a quota system. Occupying roles such as Supervisors and Co-ordinators of the programmes could help to increase women’s participation as a result of better representation and relatability.

Concerning cash transfers (CTs), Mexico’s Oportunidades, as well as cash transfer programmes in Africa, could be made more gender-sensitive. Especially about the time poverty women face, such programmes could be improved by encouraging men’s involvement in domestic and care duties, and by even make making male domestic involvement one of the conditions for households accessing the grant.

For improved and sustained impacts in the quest for the closure of the gender gaps in poverty, in 2010, Rebecca Holmes and Nicola Jones advised that cash transfers should be institutionally linked to other complementary programmes. An example of this is how Brazilian Bolsa Familia had a single registry that integrated benefitting families to the programmes of other ministries and departments such as programmes for food security, housing, banking (financial inclusion) and credit services, judicial and legal services, agricultural inputs and skill training in order to avoid duplicity of efforts. Conditional Cash Transfers could also be a tool to improve women’s literacy and economic empowerment by making participation in adult education and skill acquisition conditions for receiving the transfer. In Peru, Rebecca Holmes and Nicola Jones noted that women participating in the Juntos programme felt empowered and socially included as a result of acquiring basic literacy skills via a weekly training session.

Provision of social protection and pension schemes for informal workers, like Indian government-established Worker Welfare Funds, should also be explored since studies have shown many women in African countries work within informal labour markets.

A Pathway to Cohesive Development

In all, gendering social protection policies and programmes in Africa are crucial in the continent’s quest to eradicate poverty and evolve into an inclusive and equitable continent as Africa marches towards the SDGs actualization in 2030. Gendering social policies and protections also give women—the vulnerable majority in the continent—social canopies that advance their human capital development, thus, replacing the perpetual social exclusion and inequality that they are accustomed to. Therefore, it is pertinent for African countries to re-examine their present welfare and protection policies and gender future policies for cohesive development

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