Since adolescence is a highly vulnerable period of rapid physiological, biological, and psychological change, researchers and development partners are increasingly asking how social protection can facilitate safer transitions to adulthood, and what additional factors shape these transitions for youth.
Vulnerabilities related to adverse outcomes in adolescence are often shaped by gender norms, which can constrain the opportunities available to adolescent girls and jeopardize their health. Our research looks at how social protection programs have the potential to transform the lives of participants if they address these vulnerabilities and structural barriers.
Looking at gender
One type of structural barrier is systematic exclusion from services or opportunities due to social class, gender or caste. Discriminatory gender and social norms, can also act as structural drivers of vulnerability among girls, as they perpetuate harmful socio-cultural practices, such as early marriage and gender-based violence. In order to have transformative effects, as they relate to gender norms, social protection would need to have impacts, which promote more equitable gender roles and relations.
Social protection defined
Social protection broadly encompasses the sets of programs and policies that aim to reduce poverty, exclusion and vulnerability. Social protection includes, but isn’t limited to cash transfers (child or disability grants, pensions, etc.), in-kind transfers of food and other items, waivers for schooling or health-related fees, and insurance schemes, which typically play a protective or preventive role, by either responding to adversity or shocks experienced by poor households (protective), or aiming to prevent future harm by bolstering households’ ability to cope with future shocks such as loss of income or unexpected flooding (preventive).
Transitions to adulthood
“Safe” transitions can be defined as freedom from violence and hazardous labor, having access to schooling and health services, experiencing positive mental health, and delaying pregnancy and marriage, among other positive outcomes.
What is the existing evidence on how social protection, and cash transfers in particular, are helping to change gender norms, as they relate to adolescents? This was among the questions asked when experts convened in London on September 10, 2018, at an event organized by the Overseas Development Institute, UCL Institute of the Americas, and Gender & Adolescence Global Evidence (GAGE) consortium, and the ALIGN project. Other questions that participants grappled with included:
- How can a ‘gender-norms lens’ be integrated in the existing social protection policy and programming?
- Can a gender norms lens help advance a gender responsive social protection agenda?
- Is social protection really the best mechanism to address social and gender norms?
- Is it cost effective to influence gender norms through social protection?
- What are the trade-offs of addressing (or not) gender norms through social protection programming?
As researchers based at the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti working on the Transfer Project — a joint collaboration between UNICEF, FAO and the University of North Carolina, focused on generating evidence on social protection and facilitating its uptake — the authors of this blog participated in this event. Here are some of our own reflections on discussions generated during this event and our thoughts for moving the agenda forward.
Social protection has the potential to transform gender norms and relations through the following pathways:
- decreasing gender inequalities in schooling attainment;
- promoting positive attitudes around how girls are valued by their families and communities;
- promoting women’s financial inclusion (that is, registering a bank account in women’s name to enable her to accumulate savings and grow a business);
- expanding women’s social support, economic networks, and participation in the community;
- reducing violence in the home, which generates a cycle of violence as children are exposed and replicate that behavior in adulthood;
- promoting more equitable distribution of domestic work between women and men.
Nevertheless, cash transfer programs are not necessarily gender transformative, and they may reproduce discriminatory gender norms and practices, aggravating inequalities between the sexes. For instance, the conditions or “co-responsibilites” that female care providers are expected to fulfill to receive benefits can reinforce gender stereotypes around women’s sole responsibility for caretaking, ignoring their economic responsibilities, and cutting into their available time, and increasing girls’ work burdens, who tend to substitute the work of their mothers.
Adolescents are rarely the primary focus of government-run social protection programs, but such programs can provide opportunities to leverage impacts for adolescents. Many social protection programs are aimed at investing in early childhood development, and “breaking the inter-generational cycle of poverty.” Numerous programs target large numbers of poor households with adolescents living in them, and adolescents are key to breaking this inter-generational cycle as they transition to adulthood. This creates an opening to boost impacts of social protection programs for adolescents, by mainstreaming adolescent lens into policy and programming, and providing complementary services, targeted to adolescents, to improve their health, skills, and knowledge.
Programs that focus on attitudes and empowerment of individual girls without addressing discriminatory attitudes and practices in the larger community or broader structural barriers, are unlikely to have transformative effects. Many or most of those girls will continue to live in the same communities that limit their opportunities in the first place. They may continue to face limited access to schooling, employment, or financial inclusion, and pressure to marry early.
Proposed strategies need to be practical, feasible, and matched to government priorities and institutional capacities and resources. Social norm change interventions are resource intensive and time consuming. Researchers and practitioners cannot be over-ambitious in terms of what social protection (on its own) can achieve. Further, strategies need to be supported by broader socio-economic and legislative policy frameworks.
Finally, strategic decisions need to be informed by policy analysis and evidence. On both the research and program sides, a combination of concrete actions can be adopted to push this agenda forward:
- Adopt a long-term vision and a sequenced approach to programming: This may require starting from easier issues and progressively moving towards more complex normative goals.
- Undertake formative research to understand how social and gender norms affect adolescent behaviors and outcomes and then re-adjust program objectives accordingly. Existing design features can be tweaked to achieve transformative objectives (for example, larger transfer size for adolescents to combat increasing opportunity cost of schooling over work, adolescent-specific messaging, among others).
- Consider “cash plus” programming: Link adolescents in cash transfer participating households to existing services, such as sexual and reproductive health information and services, treatment and testing for HIV, or provide complementary programming, such as vocational training, financial inclusion and e-banking, mentorship schemes and safe spaces.
- Build staff capacity: Paying attention to the key cadre tasked with making inter-sectoral linkages on the ground, such as social welfare and monitoring officers.
- Measure change: Use a combination of impact evaluations, process evaluation, and qualitative research to help understand 1) how norms affect program impacts of social protection programs and 2) the role of social protection (and complementary schemes) in changing gender norms, and how changes *actually* happen.
- Facilitate evidence uptake: Use the evidence to engage with policymakers and communities to build their support for transformative adolescent-focused interventions, and advocate for reaching the ‘hardest to reach’ adolescents.
Tia Palermo is a Social Policy Specialist in the Social & Economic Policy Section at UNICEF’s Office of Research – Innocenti, where she conducts research with the Transfer Project.
The Transfer Project is working to provide rigorous evidence on programme impacts in an effort to inform future programme design and scale-up. For more information on the Transfer Project’s research on cash transfers, we invite you to read our research briefs here or follow us on Twitter @TransferProjct