Integrating gender and intersectionality in social protection programmes

Reflecting on recent IIED research examining the impact of COVID-19 on women in India, Tracy Kajumba and Ritu Bharadwaj explain why gender and intersectionality must be embedded in social protection programmes.

Tracy Kajumba's picture Ritu Bharadwaj's picture
Tracy Kajumba is a principal researcher and Ritu Bharadwaj a senior researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group
07 September 2021
A group of women use a ladder to climb up to an imposing well to collect water in a desert-like landscape

Women collect water from a well in Kanoi, India. Men returning to villages resulted in more domestic chores for women, such as walking long distances to fetch water, and less participation by them in public meetings (Photo: nevil zaveriCC BY 2.0)

Social protection programmes that recognise the different risks faced by women and men have proven effective in increasing food security and productivity, helping to support the livelihoods of India’s rural poor.

But despite efforts to address gender-specific risks, prevailing cultural and social norms disproportionately disadvantage women and create multiple constraints, including limited ownership, access to, and control of long-term assets, resources and services (for example irrigation structures such as tanks, ponds and fodder areas that can increase productivity of agricultural land), exclusion from the labour market, unpaid care work and limited access to financial services.

Multidimensional vulnerabilities

Multiple risks including climate change, natural disasters, food insecurity, conflict and pandemics − as shown powerfully the world over by COVID-19 − increase vulnerabilities; these risks compound gender and intersectional disadvantages, poverty and exclusion.

While these areas heavily overlap, most programmes do not unpack gender, intersectionality and intra-household dynamics and so fail to assess the support that women and other disadvantaged groups need to manage climate-related shocks and other risks.

Understanding the impact of COVID-19

IIED carried out focus group discussions with rural women across three states in India participating in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) – the world’s largest public works-based social protection programme.

The research revealed the following impacts of COVID-19:

Reduced work opportunities for women

MGNREGS guarantees 100 days of wage employment to every registered rural household. Over the last 5-6 years, women’s participation in the programme has increased, resulting in them claiming more than 50% of the workdays.

But COVID-19 led to a decline in this share: migrants, both women and men, left India’s cities in droves and returned to the villages. Here, men dominated the worksites, reducing opportunities for women. One MGNREGS worker noted that men are preferred because they are faster and more ‘’efficient’.

Exclusion based on cultural and social norms

While more social protection schemes are beginning to recognise gender-specific risks, cultural and social norms continue to impede women’s mobility and freedom.

In the villages of Ghatiya and Khamat in the Alirajpur district of Madhya Pradesh, women of migrant families – under the scrutiny of village elders − are expected to stay at home. This prevents them from working under MGNREGS and unless they migrate to the cities − where they are free to work − they remain financially dependent and unable to contribute to household expenditure.

Some women also reported incidences of child marriages and gender-based violence increasing during COVID-19, but these were rarely acknowledged by the village councils. Structural inequalities compounded these vulnerabilities – such as women’s and girls’ disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care work, and limited or no access to social protection during the pandemic.

Increased workload

The fear of contracting COVID-19 created additional work for women and girls as they were responsible for maintaining household hygiene and for keeping children and relatives safe.

General household work also increased as men returned to the villages. With domestic chores mounting, women participated less and less in public meetings which became dominated by men.

Household food insecurity

COVID-19 led to inadequate food rationing. During lockdown, women in villages in the three states reported receiving less food grain than they were entitled to. School closures brought the further burden of needing to source additional food for children.

Advancing fair and inclusive social protection programmes

COVID-19 continues to both highlight and exacerbate global inequality. Recovery plans need robust mechanisms that strengthen social protection systems by making them fair, inclusive and resilient, and able to address gender equality and intersectionality issues.

Reflecting on the impact of COVID-19, these programmes should embrace the following principles:

Recognise gender and intersectional disadvantages

While social protection programmes are intended to support the poorest households and individuals, benefits are not always accessed equally. Geographies, ethnicity, gender, race, age and social class can all influence individual and household ability to access programmes. Conducting intersectional analysis of benefits and vulnerability is useful for helping to achieve equitable outcomes.

Support holistic gender equality and empowerment

Social protection programmes need to give special attention to reorienting the implementation strategies that provide an enabling environment for women to participate and get their voices heard in the decision-making process. This would mean developing gender inclusive institutional structures under MGNREGS.

Encourage coordination and coherence between policy and practice

Reducing vulnerability to shocks and stresses calls for strategies that integrate gendered and intersectional social protection, climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction at the local level.

For poor communities, these are not experienced as separate risks but as compounding risks − hence a holistic and coordinated approach is needed.

Focus on the ‘learning’ in monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) to reframe social protection programmes

While more work is being done to generate gender-disaggregated indicators and data for use in social protection programmes, gender integration can still appear tokenistic at times.

Monitoring and evaluation systems should use the learning component of MEL systems to improve programmes, manage risks better and address underlying causes of poverty and vulnerability of women, girls, and other excluded groups.

The research discussed in this blog is funded by the Infrastructure for Climate Resilient Growth (ICRG) programme of the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)

About the author

Tracy Kajumba ([email protected]) is a principal researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group

Ritu Bharadwaj ([email protected]) is a senior researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group

Tracy Kajumba's picture Ritu Bharadwaj's picture