As someone who has been working on gender-responsive social protection for the last decade, it was exciting to see what had once been relegated to the fringes of both social protection and gender equality circles be the focus of CSW63.
The global evidence base is increasingly pointing to the critical role that social protection programmes play in preventing millions of people from falling into destitution and food insecurity. But at the same time, it also underscores that most programmes still fall far short of achieving transformational change or sustainably lifting people out of poverty and promoting empowerment.
CSW63 was an opportune moment to take stock of what we know about social protection and its role in supporting vulnerable girls and boys, women and men. It provided a space to share promising practices and to energise the gender equality community to become more active champions of gender-responsive social protection.
In particular, it was encouraging to see increased attention on programming that is informed by not only a gender lens but also a lifecycle one. Side events ran the gamut from spotlighting social protection and gender- and adolescent-specific vulnerabilities, to social protection and its role in promoting women’s economic empowerment, in supporting care responsibilities; and in enhancing the wellbeing of older women.
There was also a welcome spotlight on a much broader understanding of vulnerabilities than is the norm in social protection debates. Discussions saw an emphasis on vulnerabilities to gender-based and intimate partner violence, child marriage, and trauma and psychosocial illbeing – including the particularly complex vulnerabilities that refugees and internally displaced persons face.
This said the elephant in the room – both inside UN headquarters and at side meetings across New York – appeared to be the gendered politics of social protection. Clearly it’s important that ministers of women and social development become more informed and active players at the social protection dialogue table. But we also simultaneously need the policy actors with the budget and the mandate to deliver large-scale social protection programmes –in ministries of finance and economics to agriculture, infrastructure, education and health–to be sensitised as to how gender and lifecycle-smart approaches influence programme impacts. Yet very few CSW63 delegations included high level representatives from these ministries, thereby reinforcing the age-old division of labour whereby gender equity considerations are seen as the work of women and proponents of gender equality, rather than a mainstream priority.
There was also relatively little discussion about the politics of programme reversals and backlash, and how we can mitigate their damaging effects. We have, for example, seen a huge downturn in funding for refugee communities from Palestine (due to US government cuts to UNRWA) and Syria (due to donor fatigue), with tens of thousands of adolescents cut off from cash support for schooling.
And at the beginning of 2019, Estancias – an innovative and robustly evaluated social protection intervention in Mexico that combined women’s entrepreneurship with subsidised childcare services for impoverished urban families – was decommissioned. In the name of efficiency, Estancias has now been replaced by cash grants of a lower amount and an expectation that families can shoulder care responsibilities without government investments in public services.
So what can we do going forward to work in more politically savvy ways and see gender- and age-responsive social protection programmes go to scale? If I had to recommend just three priority actions to national governments and development partners I’d suggest the following:
- Ensure that all government- and donor-funded social protection programmes are routinely monitored and evaluated from both a gender and lifecycle lens to understand the impacts within households and across generations, so as to better inform subsequent programme design.
- Invest in support to gender-focused civil society organisations working with children, adolescent girls and adult women to become more established voices in social protection dialogues.
- Prioritise documenting and learning from not just technical but also political negotiations and calculi underlying programme design and implementation. Ultimately this will help to better leverage the role of those championing gender- and age-responsive approaches in mainstream social protection ministries and donor agencies, whilst also mitigating programme reversals and backlash.