Cash transfers: What’s gender got to do with it?

UNICEF works on social protection programs in over 100 countries, and many are expanding rapidly. In discussions with stakeholders, there are two gender assumptions we hear repeatedly:

  • giving benefits to women (rather than men) will result in better outcomes – particularly for children
  • transfers will increase women’s empowerment.

In other words, paying attention to gender is important not only to deliver better programme results, but also as its own objective. But are these assumptions based on evidence?

While the claims are promising, we actually know less about them than we should. The primary reason for uncertainty is that gender dynamics are highly contextual and their effect on outcomes varies according to underlying cultural norms. As a consequence, it has been hard to land on a global consensus on both topics.

A woman standing and lookingat a payment.
Ivan GrifiA woman has just received her first LEAP 1000 payment Village of Gundaa, Northern Region

Let’s consider the first assumption:  Men and women will invest cash transfers in different ways. Of course. However, assuming this will result in significantly better programme outcomes is less clear. Research showing women spend in more ‘family-friendly’ ways is primarily based on household consumption and spending studies – rather than studies which actually evaluated the recipients of transfers in a rigorous way (e.g. through randomization of benefits). Recently, a review attempted to answer questions regarding economic transfers (including cash transfers), screening nearly 6,000 abstracts to find those which compared men and women recipients within the same program. Only 15 studies included a thorough comparison, with the overall conclusion that there was no pattern showing household benefits were greater depending on who in the household received them.

What about the second assumption: Cash transfers empower women beneficiaries. While some literature examines this question, a review of quantitative and qualitative evidence on an array of economic interventions shows that only in the case of conditional cash transfers is there strong support of the claim. Evidence from all quantitative studies and qualitative evidence on unconditional cash transfers is mixed. In fact, some critiques suggest conditional transfers could actually reinforce traditional gender roles and increase women’s work burden related to conditions. Assessing this evidence is complicated by a myriad of indicators used to measure ‘empowerment’: indicators range from women’s intra-household decision making to social networks to land or asset ownership, making it difficult to draw conclusions. In addition, programmes may have very different impacts depending on design. Finally, the bulk of evidence comes from Latin America, where programs are largely conditional and where programs have been operating the longest (thus with opportunities to show medium or long(er) term impact).

Consider evidence from the multi-country Transfer Project, a sub-Saharan African initiative supporting rigorous mixed-method evaluations of largely unconditional government-run cash transfers. In these programs, the majority of beneficiaries are women or reach female headed households. For example, in Zambia’s Child Grant Program, 99% of beneficiaries are women, as the unconditional cash transfer (equivalent to US$12/month) is given to primary caregivers in households with children age 0-5. In two recent working papers, we examine how the Zambian cash transfer programme could have affected women’s empowerment. In the first paper, we examine women’s intra-household decision making using quantitative impact evaluation data from a 4-year randomized control trial, paired with a qualitative study to examine narratives and definitions of empowerment among women and men in study communities. Quantitatively, we find significant increases in the total number decisions women participated in. However, in practical terms, these increases were so small (one third of a decision over nine domains) they seem inconsequential.

This lack of meaningful improvements were echoed in qualitative work, showing entrenched gender norms:

“Even in the laws of Zambia, a woman is like a steering wheel, and us (the men) are the ones to drive them in everything” ~Male, age 53 (beneficiary household)

Yet, women’s narratives implied a more subtle change: In nearly all cases, when women and men were asked to talk about what empowerment means, they equated it to financial standing, rather than on relationships or social standing. In this realm, women saw a change brought about by the grant:

“I have also been empowered because of the child grant. I never used to have my own money, but now even as I suggest something to my husband, I don’t feel worthless because I have money in my hands. It is my first time to experience such; I am really empowered.” ~Female, married age 24 (beneficiary)

In a second paper we look directly at women’s financial standing (specifically savings and household non-farm enterprises). We find evidence that the cash transfer increased the probability that women were saving (by 100%), and the amount they saved. Secondly, transfers led to increase in small businesses operated by women – beneficiaries used savings to invest in income- generating activities to smooth consumption and provide additional economic security for their households. Therefore, we see that although decision making is a useful concept, it is difficult to measure and interpret quantitatively, and in this context, actual economic indicators themselves are more insightful. In the words of women themselves, and as mirrored by their financial status, the Zambia transfer programme increased women’s wellbeing, and we hypothesize was made possible because transfers were paid directly to women themselves.

Ultimately, gender dynamics within any programme will vary with cultural context and it’s important to consider how gender may affect programs from the start. If not ‘one size fits all,’ what general conclusions can we draw from this example?

  1. While transfers target women due to the gender inequalities they can help reduce, cash delivered directly to women (versus men) may not necessarily result in better outcomes for children.
  1. We should not assume that giving cash to women will lead to a change in household decision making as this depends on relationships with men and power dynamics within households. Alternative outcome measures could include specific targets – for example women’s savings, labor force participation, education, mental health or subjective welfare.
  1. To reduce poverty and gender inequalities, we should be prepared to make design modifications to increase the chance that women can and will take full advantage of the opportunities the program offers. Rigorous evaluation should accompany these innovations to see if they make a difference and at what cost.

At the Transfer Project we are busy producing more evidence around gendered outcomes for adults and youth within government-run social protection plans. Follow us at @Transferproject or sign up for our newsletter to get the latest news delivered to your inbox!

Amber Peterman is a Social Policy Specialist at UNICEF Office of Research—Innocenti working on gender and safe transitions to adulthood in the Transfer Project.

Jennifer Yablonski is a Social Protection Specialist in Social Inclusion and Policy at UNICEF Headquarters supporting UNICEF social protection programme design globally.

Luisa Natali is a Consultant with the Social and Economic Policy Division at the UNICEF Office of Research—Innocenti working on cash transfer programmes in Zambia.



Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with “required.”


  1. A lot has to do with social construct of values and the administration of the same by different members of society. Financial standing will most likely be equated to individual efficacy- this spectrum is wide and varies across women and men. A very good read. The sequel should be “Gender transfers, what’s cash got to do with it”

  2. Thanks a lot Amber, Jennifer and Luisa for the excellent post. I would like to further support what you mentioned by saying that the learning paper UNICEF DRC is currently finalizing in partnership with American institutes for Research (AIR) on the multipurpose cash experience of the Alternative Responses for Communities in Crisis (ARCC) programme here in eastern DRC confirms what you wrote: (i) No significantly different purchasing pattern, nor household performances on any indicator based on gender of registered beneficiary (ii) when the programme registered by default the woman we actually observed a significant decrease in women decision making on four areas of decision out of nine, suggesting that leaving household free to chose may be a good do no harm measure while we wait to better understand household dynamics in order to have a better impact on women empowerment

    The learning paper should be finalized by late June/ Early July 2016.