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Monday, March 8, 2021

Does Social Protection have an Effect on Gender Dynamics? Maybe!

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by Naila Kabeer & Hania Sholkamy

World Bank President David Malpass meets with staff and recipients of the Takaful and Karama conditional cast transfer program in Aswan, May 2019. Source: World Bank / Andy Trambly

This new Academic Collaboration research project, ‘Can Social Protection Empower Women? Patriarchy, Economic Agency and Redistribution Policies in Egypt’, is primarily a methodological endeavour. We hope to identify the research tools that enable an understanding of the ways in which social protection interventions affect gender roles and dynamics in impoverished patriarchal contexts. The aim is not to show that social protection works well for women but to suggest the domains and research practices where evidence of impact is located. In other words, find questions, indicators, methods and approaches that are gender-aware and relevant to the socially and politically constructed lives of women and men enduring extreme poverty. Our interest is driven by concerns of misrecognition associated with social protection interventions. The effort that goes into designing ‘gender aware’ interventions by, for example, targeting women as beneficiaries, by ensuring that programs are inclusive and do not over-burden women with new constraints or that provide additional benefits to girls and women over those given to men should have some consequences to the way patriarchal privilege is sustained by poverty. The planned research will investigate the assumptions of impact that are ingrained in research methodologies and methods by asking women what their views and by revisiting the proxies and indicators that are usually used to measure ‘empowerment’.

We intend to work in Egypt where massive cash transfers programmes, entitled Karama and Takaful, were introduced in 2014. Since its launch, this program has enabled a significant redistribution of wealth from the state to households identified as deprived and vulnerable in a relatively short period of time. The monthly benefit is triple that of previous social pensions and unlike previous welfare benefits is not given to the head of household but is given to women in the family. Can this simple and straightforward intervention make a difference to social, cultural and political realms of gender inequalities? Before finding evidence to answer this question, researchers need to explicitly identify the gendered social corollaries and effects of social protection program. Given the ways in which poverty decimates and consolidates cultural and power practices that undergird gender roles, can modest accretions of income change gender power dynamics? And if so, which kinds of inequitable relations and agencies are amenable to this change?

Social interventions such as cash transfers are not given as rights but as a temporary support. These interventions are meant to change the status of recipients and ensure they are enabled in some way to adapt to or overcome dire economic and social straits. Unlike social rights, these programs may be terminated or neglected if they do not lead to credible improvements in peoples’ lives. Gender justice is an aim of most donor-funded programs. Although the Egyptian program is funded by the state budget, it has benefitted from budget support loans provided by the World Bank. Therefore, as with donor-funded programs, it has sought to be inclusive of women and beneficial to them.  Scholars have doubted the sustained empowerment effect of income-availing interventions (such as direct cash, micro-finance, job creation or other forms of social interventions that aim to increase income). Structural and historical predicaments such as poverty and vulnerability are not easily alleviated with a monthly injection of cash. However, cash has to have some effect given that it is provided as part of an initiative that addresses burdens of gender inequality.

Context is key to social knowledge, yet theories and methods are often summoned from location to location, from one time to another, and used to derive evidence of effect. The measurement of women’s empowerment is a case in point. How do you measure progress in this arena? There are several composite indices that purport to do so based on indicators that derive their significance or meaning from established theories of gender justice or of women’s empowerment. But these indicators, albeit adapted and validated, can operate differently in different contexts. For example, a common and well-regarded indicator of women’s autonomy and therefore empowerment is the ability to make decisions. Women are asked if they decide what to cook, if they can go out, when to take a child to a health centre, if they can save, what they can spend and who to vote for. The specific decisions may vary depending on context, but the underlying premise is that autonomy and empowerment are associated.

This particular set of questions did not work as expected in a recent IFPRI impact evaluation of Egypt’s national cash transfers program. This survey found that women who had received the cash payment and whose families seem to have benefitted from the transfer in fact reported reduced autonomy and that they made fewer decisions.

We want to understand this finding and enable a deeper understanding of gender dynamics as shaped by redistribution policies. Do women have less autonomy despite attaining a modicum of economic security that they had not had before becoming beneficiaries? Do they express autonomy in terms of non-decision making behaviour? Is the problem that the poor do not really have many options to choose from and therefore decision-making is not a relevant signifier of autonomy? Perhaps decision-making is not the best proxy for freedom in the context of Egyptian poverty.

Social protection programs and the assumptions that inform their design have made claims to effecting gender injustice by recognising women as beneficiaries in their own right, by incorporating program features that are sensitive to women’s needs and conditions and by attending to governance so as to ensure that programs are inclusive and equitable. But these assumptions need to be tested and perhaps challenged by research that transcends the immediate outcomes of these initiatives. By understanding the context in which redistribution programs are introduced it may be possible to better predict or find knock-on effects of cash transfers that transcend simple distribution.


This blog post introduces the Academic Collaboration research project, ‘Can Social Protection Empower Women? Patriarchy, Economic Agency and Redistribution Policies in Egypt’.

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