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January 09, 2017

Designing social protection for women

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In low-income countries a typical woman’s work history is a patchwork of informal sector work; periods out of the labor market for child birth, then childcare, and then, later, elderly parent care; working fewer than 40 hours per week while trying to juggle these responsibilities; and working at or close to home. The work is also typically low paid, with social norms and discrimination restricting women’s access to more desirable work. Women also face barriers in accessing finance, which limits their ability to develop their own businesses. On top of all this, women tend to live longer than their spouses and so face an uncertain economic future in widowhood.

However, when bureaucrats sit down to develop schemes to protect citizens from the worst economic vulnerabilities—schemes such as workfare programs, unemployment benefits, pensions, and other social security payments—they often start this process (or it appears so from the many programs we see around the world) with the image in mind of a man working full time, continually from early adulthood to retirement, often in the formal sector, and free from family constraints. How to protect such a man from economic uncertainty and ruin? As for the women, the implicit assumption is that if we look after the men, the men will look after the women.

Social protection programs consequently often prove inaccessible to women—like workfare programs that offer guaranteed employment on a full-time basis in physically challenging jobs, and pension and unemployment insurance schemes that are set up for long tenure formal sector employees. The few programs that explicitly target women—for example, conditional cash transfers with mothers as recipients—often do so on the basis of motherhood (not womanhood) and for the benefit of the child (with conditions attached to school attendance and health).

With a little flexibility of thought, innovative schemes around the world have shown that social protection programs can be tweaked at little cost to be much more woman-friendly. For example, workfare programs such as those in India and Africa that offer work that is socially acceptable for women do not require workers to work a full day, and they provide childcare. Payment in food instead of cash has also been shown to attract more women. Pension and other schemes with low charges and which provide benefits that reflect contributions that can be made over a (fractured and informal) working life rather than schemes that reward long tenure in formal sector work (defined contribution as opposed to defined benefit) are also more suitable for women.

Experience in India further shows that it is possible to offer comprehensive social protection—maternity payments, unemployment benefits, disability allowances, retirement benefits, medical care, funeral expenses—to informal sector workers funded by contributions from workers, employers, and government.

Starting the design process being conscious of the path of women’s working lives, rather than using a man as default, leads to different, more inclusive, policy prescriptions and does not leave women at the mercy of the economic elements and the men in their lives.

© Lisa Cameron 

Related article:
Social protection programs for women in developing countries, by Lisa Cameron

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