Awkward truths and the changing face of social protection

Social protection is a fundamental right and key tool in addressing shocks, vulnerability and poverty. It can make the difference that keeps a child from going to bed hungry and missing school. It can allow people to access essential healthcare and to adapt more easily to climate-related disasters.

Expanding coverage and improving the design and implementation of social protection programmes, such as cash transfers and health insurance, can have a significant impact on the most vulnerable households. Increasingly, where we have sex-disaggregated data, we can see that social protection can deliver specific results depending on your gender, and have a varying impact on gender equality outcomes.

It would be convenient to portray gender-responsive programming as easy. It isn’t. But it is possible to do, and it is worth it.

For example, in many cases cash transfers have been shown to promote girls’ and women’s empowerment. Transfers increase decision-making power over contraceptive use and reduce some forms of violence or harmful practices – which can have an impact on multiple outcomes for children and adults in the home. However, the evidence is not uniformly positive; in some contexts, the impact of cash on different forms of gender-based violence has been mixed, indicating the need for further research.

The SDGs are clear that poverty is not just about income. Progress in gender equality is a critical component of our fundamental rights-based goal of reducing or ending all forms of poverty, and of not thinking of poverty purely as a one-dimensional problem of income. We need to invest in rigorous, high quality evidence to ensure that we understand how to take full advantage of what social protection can achieve for girls and women. Most importantly, we must ensure that we do no harm.

© UNICEF/UN0344204/Shehzad NooraniAfter the home was destroyed due to fighting, Esra Runno, along with her family, came from Aleppo to take refuge in Turkey in 2013. Esra is 13 years old and studies in a local school in 6th grade. Her family benefits from the Conditional Cash Transfer for Education (CCTE) project aims to increase the number of refugee children enrolled in and attending school in Turkey.

Gender-responsive programming doesn’t happen by accident

Next week marks International Women’s Day, and a year since the inter-agency group of actors on social protection called for greater action to promote gender equality in all of our social protection work. This starts with gender-responsive programming which deliberately responds to the specific needs of adults and children of all genders, assessing the gendered norms, experiences and discriminatory practices, and taking measures to actively address specific needs. That pretty much sounds like a no-brainer, and it is an integral part of UNICEF’s Strategic Plan, where we have committed to “strengthen gender-responsive programming in all areas of UNICEF’s work, recognizing the special challenges faced by girls and women.”

But the truth is that most of us need to be very intentional about doing this if we are going to make progress.

This is a little awkward, because it would be convenient to portray gender-responsive programming as easy. It isn’t. It’s much easier to just pretend that everyone is the same and gender neutral. But it is possible to do, and it is worth it. Forget gender and we fail the children and communities that we serve, and particularly the most marginalised, because there is no getting away from the fact that different facets of poverty are experienced in gendered ways. Where we respond to gender with understanding and intent, we can deliver more inclusive results that reach more of the most marginalised in health, nutrition, education, sexual and reproductive health rights and gender-based violence. With gender-transformational programming, we can pitch our ambition even higher, to actively shift harmful gender norms in the long-term.

How serious are we about stepping up?

The time is now for stepping up ambition on this work. That’s because we’ve set in train a lot of work to try and make this difficult task as straight forward as possible. In UNICEF, we are drilling down to make our work towards gender-responsive social protection both intentional and specific. We are:

  • Analysing our 140+ country office social protection programmes, to identify where there is potential to really step up our ambition. Around 20% of country offices are already explicitly aiming to support gender-sensitive, gender-responsive and gender-transformational social protection work, which is a strong foundation to build on. But we know we can do more, and we plan to;
  • Developing accessible and concise tools and guidance where gaps remain, and republicising rather than reinventing the wheel where they already exist, such as this excellent FAO guidance;
  • Showcasing trailblazers who recognise that gender discrimination is fundamentally linked to poverty, and intersects with other characteristics that lead to systemic social exclusion and marginalisation. These trailblazers are already working towards gender-responsive or gender-transformational social protection, and there is much to learn from this work around the world;
  • Working in partnership with national governments, other UN agencies, civil society and other key partners such as DFID and the World Bank, identifying opportunities to work and learn together;
  • Paying attention to what is already out there, like the brilliant research produced by Innocenti, The Transfer Project, ODI and many others;
  • Pooling our collective weight in programmes and research within UNICEF, to shape and roll out the new DFID-funded Gender-Responsive and Age-Sensitive Research Programme on Social Protection, embedding an evidence-into-action approach from inception.
© UNICEF/UNI297209/Joseph HeadeGloria and her mother, Charity. Gloria is a beneficiary of the Service Efficiency and Effectiveness for Vulnerable Children and Adolescents education grant. While Charity is a Social Cash Transfer beneficiary. Ndola, Copperbelt Province, Zambia.

Our work will only become easier with the growing evidence base and practical experience at our fingertips. For now, we’ve got to work with what we’ve got, and translate the high-level ambition into the nuts and bolts of our work, adapting as we learn. This can mean a range of things, from:

  • undertaking gender-responsive vulnerability analysis; to
  • drawing on context specific evidence on gender norms to support decisions about design choices, communication plans and risk mitigation strategies; to
  • designing outcome indicators and M&E systems with gendered risks and opportunities at the heart of our thinking.

The alternative is to ignore gender, and risk squandering the opportunity to deliver what is possible for the most marginalised – and even risk doing harm. That’s not a risk we can afford to take.

Ruth Graham-Goulder is a Social Policy & Gender Specialist in the Social Policy Section at UNICEF HQ, supporting UNICEF social protection programme design globally and leading on a new organisational workstream on gender-responsive social protection.

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