Do Social Protection Programmes That Impose Conditionalities on Women Fail to Confront Patriarchy as a Root Cause of Inequality?

Date: 8 September 2014
Author: Sophie Plagerson

Do Social Protection Programmes That Impose Conditionalities on Women Fail to Confront Patriarchy as a Root Cause of Inequality?

The good and the bad: summarizing the evidence on social protection and gender equality

Social protection programmes with conditionalities have undoubtedly connected with issues of women’s rights to equality. Indeed, the achievements of conditional cash transfers are proven and tangible, especially for women and girls, who are disproportionately at risk of poverty. These programmes typically require participants’ adherence to programmed education, health and nutrition services in order to access cash benefits. Evaluation research has shown repeatedly that transfers reduce the severity of female poverty and enable a modest fraction of women to leave poverty. Transfers can improve women’s nutrition and access to health care. They can increase female school attendance and make girls’ education more accessible and attractive.

Yet, tackling gender inequality requires more than increased access to health and education for women. It is essential to ask to what extent social protection has confronted the hierarchies of power relations, the pervasive dominance of male logic and authority and the systemic reproduction of injustice against women, which characterize patriarchy. Social protection has come a long way. Historically social security policies benefited mainly privileged sectors of society, such as those in formal employment. In recent decades, the masculine bias and the under-representation of women in these programmes have been highlighted and questioned. It has become clear that, across cultures, whether intentionally or unintentionally, social policy interacts with deep-seated gender dimensions. Major efforts are now underway in many low- and middle-income country settings to explicitly monitor and direct attention to gender as a mainstream social policy issue. Social protection’s sensitivity to the gender agenda has surged.

However, the evidence on female empowerment resulting from cash transfer programmes is mixed. In varied contexts, women report increased knowledge, status, self-esteem and agency. They report improved decision making and greater participation outside the home. As a result, some women are able to save, invest and be deemed creditworthy. On the other hand, transfers may also enable men to share less of their own income within the household. Conflicts can emerge within households if greater control by women over resources is met with resistance. Increasingly it has become clear that many cash transfer programmes are marked by a dual approach with regard to gender engagement, which envisages parallel roles for women. On the one hand, the need to ensure the right to social protection for women and girls is embraced. On the other hand, mothers are designated as policy conduits in order to achieve social security for children. In this capacity, conditionalities may act to reinforce the burden of multiple expectations placed on women. Thus policy has struggled to reconcile the rights to social security for different interdependent vulnerable groups. Given the narrow focus on women, to the exclusion of men, it has been observed that cash transfers may assist women within existing frameworks of gender relations without necessarily transforming their parameters.

Strings or no strings

How important are the conditionalities with regard to patriarchy? Can the achievements for women be preserved, and the downsides avoided by de-conditionalizing transfers? The evidence from a small number of randomized trials suggest that unconditional transfers also change the behaviours on which conditional transfers are conditioned (see for example Baird et al. 2013 and Robertson et al. 2013). The differential cost to women of conditions still remains a matter for debate (see Bradshaw and Víquez 2009 or Kidd and Calder 2012). Polarized views are strongly defended by proponents of conditionality on one side and defenders of no-strings attached transfers on the other. Certainly the answers are deeply contextual. If girls’ school attendance is already high, it is futile to impose school attendance as a condition of benefits. If clinics are inaccessible, conditionalities can lead to additional discrimination rather than support for mothers of young children.

Conditionalities are ambiguous in relation to gender inequality. Conditionalities can be seen as the state giving legitimacy to social change. For example, women who face strong cultural bias against female education now have the autonomy to send their daughters to school. Alternatively, those same conditions may be construed as the state ‘not trusting’ its citizens and therefore imposing certain behaviours on them, thus depriving women of autonomy.

Similarly, conditional cash transfers can be framed as an active partnership between the state and its citizens. Yet co-responsibility can also very easily look like an unrealistic responsibility placed on citizens to carve their own route out of poverty. Consistency of policy messages dictates which interpretation prevails. For example, if a programme requires women to sign up, ensure their children go to school and get vaccinated, yet does not actively engage them in the management and evaluation of the programme, it is unlikely to be perceived as an investment in their social rights.

Moving forward

Social protection still has a long way to go. Drawing on the arguments and evidence summarized above, there are two major challenges for social protection going forward in relation to gender equality.

The first is for social protection to be aligned with broader social movements for change. Social change that can tackle gender-based violence, gender-related stigma, early marriage for girls and child labour requires intentional and coordinated efforts across political, economic and social spheres. Social protection, whether conditional, labelled,1 or unconditional, can only ever be part of the solution. In a recent TED talk , Esta Soler reflected on 20 years of activism during which she has witnessed a 64% reduction in domestic violence in the US. Her belief that ”the arc of human history can be inclined towards equality and compassion” gives great momentum to the challenge of turning around institutions and cultures.

Secondly, men must be engaged and involved in the process of ensuring that social protection policy and practice is gender sensitive. This poses a major challenge for the design and implementation of social protection programmes. Tackling patriarchy requires us to look deeper than superficial stereotypes and to tackle the root causes of oppression and discrimination. In the journey out of unhealthy unequal relationships which trap women all round the world, the empowerment of women as independent people with equal rights is essential. Yet if this becomes an ultimate aim to the mass exclusion of men, only partial success can be claimed. There must be an ongoing progression which promotes and supports safe and healthy interdependence across groups (male/female as well as other fault lines within each society), while protecting those who remain most at risk. To this aim, dialogue which involves men and women, and recognizes their dual and common ability for strength and vulnerability, must be promoted.


Baird, S., F. Ferreira, B. Özler, M. Woolcock. 2013. “Relative effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of conditional and unconditional cash transfers for schooling outcomes in developing countries: a systematic review.” Campbell Systematic Reviews 2013:8.

Bradshaw, S. and Víquez, A. 2009. “Even if conditionalities work, do women pay the price?Poverty Insights 80:6.

Robertson, L., P. Mushati, J. Eaton et al. 2013. “Effects of unconditional and conditional cash transfers on child health and development in Zimbabwe: a cluster-randomised trial.” The Lancet. 381(9874):1283-92.

Kidd, S. and R. Calder. 2012. “The Zomba conditional cash transfer experiment: An assessment of its methodology. Pathways’ Perspectives on Social Policy in International Development, 6.


Sophie Plagerson is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Social Development in Africa, University of Johannesburg, South Africa. Current and recent projects include research on social protection and social justice, mental health, state-citizen relations, and frameworks for rights and responsibilities.


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  1. Labelled cash transfers envisage informing transfer recipients that funds are intended for specified purposes, without penalties or enforcement.
Social Protection and Human Rights