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Embracing Disruptions, Responding to Uncertainties, Valuing Agency: Situating a Feminist approach to social protection

Posted in Labour & Work, The Role of the State on April 12th, 2013 by

Elizabeth Reid, Marilyn Waring, Corina Rodriguez Enriquez and Meena Shivdas examine social protection explaining what ‘social protection’ means, and the design and delivery of social protection interventions. They outline a feminist approach to social protection based on recent research on unpaid care work and applied strategies on women and children’s rights to land and other resources and opportunities.


The aftermath of the global financial crisis has eroded the well-being of women, men and children. The fiscal strain experienced by the major economies started as a financial sector problem and escalated into ‘compound crises and devastated many households’ (Mukherjee et al., 2012). The lives of women, men and children were on the frontlines. In the face of these disruptions and uncertainties, the emerging global dialogue on social protection becomes significant. An increased feminization of income and time-poverty calls into question the boundaries, intentions and outcomes of social protection measures.

We examine the discourse on and practice of social protection. Given competing agendas and diverse social protection actors implementing a wide range of measures, we ask who controls what ‘social protection’ means? How does that ‘control’ impact on the design and delivery of social protection interventions? Does social protection reach full-time carers enveloped in acute time-poverty, and the poor and the marginalized whose lives are beset by a lack of access to resources and services?

In answering these questions, we outline a feminist approach to social protection based on recent research on unpaid care work and applied strategies on women and children’s rights to land and other resources and opportunities. The context is HIV in Commonwealth1 countries, and assessments of conditional cash transfers (CCTs) as the preferred mode of social protection across Africa, Latin America and elsewhere.

Employing the HIV care lens to unpack the meaning and impact of social protection enables us to rethink social protection agendas. As HIV leaves a trail of desolation, it creates a complex ‘rhythm and logic’2 of care and impact. Questions that arise include ‘Who needs care?’, ‘Who provides it?’ and ‘Who is left behind?’ ‘How do we protect carers when they are shackled to care work, constantly looking for ways to survive, leaving no time to enter formal work?’ We are also able to examine fear and ill-treatment, the effect of punitive laws and the impact of stigma for those affected by HIV. Importantly, we are able to observe how ‘uncertainties’ surface in the research findings on unpaid HIV care and identify how applied strategies respond to these uncertainties.

In unpacking CCTs we assess discrimination and disadvantage, and ask ‘Do social protection measures reach the poor as intended?’ As pointed out by Magdalena Sepulveda Carmona, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights in her report (A/66/265, para 9: 5): ‘Stigmatization and prejudicial attitudes generate a sense of shame, discouraging persons living in poverty from approaching public officials and seeking the support that they need. Not wishing to expose themselves to even greater social discrimination by accessing services that are stigmatized by society … (they) … may refrain from claiming entitlements’. In this sense, we wonder about the implications of building dual social protection systems with a set of solid benefits for people in formal work (as workers’ rights), while providing the rest with often inadequate, limited and time-bound cash transfers, subjected to behavioural requirements in the form of conditionalities.

By examining how these conditionalities impact on women’s gender roles and by identifying the additional pressures on women’s time and commitments, we make a case for policymakers to recognize the ‘messiness of gender’ (Kandiyoti, 1998) so that textured policies and practices get developed. The framework for feminist social protection we suggest calls for interventions to be conceptualized in a language of respect and empowerment and delivered accordingly. We also demonstrate that the needs of those engaged in 24/7 care can be anticipated, and that an anticipatory social protection should be the strategic and policy planning approach. Given that those who are in most need of protection from adverse life conditions are rarely part of policy planning and implementation, such an approach may see social protection that leads to social justice.

In mapping out the current terrain on social protection, we highlight the constraining factors shaping the landscape within which widows and abandoned women, children in HIV affected families, HIV orphans (Kidman et al., 2012), the HIV ill, depressed and dying and their carers, as well as the poor who are targeted in CCT measures, live their lives. We conclude by articulating a feminist transformative approach to anticipatory social protection that will move towards social justice.

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Social protection terrain

The early social protection discourse encompasses several sectors including food and income security, social assistance and governance. But social protection should also be about access to land and property, traditional modes of social support and safety nets that are particular to cultures, and about safe structures and places where women and children’s mobility is not threatened or hindered.

Social protection delivery systems and implementation arrangements also vary, from contributory pensions, conditional and unconditional cash transfers, tax-financed social insurance and public service delivery in health, education and nutrition, in-kind payment for services, community cash and in-kind contributions, provision for social housing and related infrastructure to support communities, social barters and social obligations. These may be implemented by both state and non-state actors making it difficult to agree on one particular definition of social protection.

In a national context, while the social protection agenda is often grounded in the government policy arena, some issues of the agenda are also driven by donor countries. Each donor agency or multilateral organization has its own definition of social protection, reflecting its economic priorities.

The World Bank, for example, views social protection as ‘… a collection of measures to improve or protect human capital, ranging from labour market interventions, publicly mandated unemployment or old-age insurance to targeted income support …’ and as a coping mechanism to ‘… assist individuals, households, and communities to better manage the income risks that leave people vulnerable …’ during crisis periods. Similarly, the Asian Development Bank links social protection with ‘policies and programmes designed to reduce poverty and vulnerability by promoting efficient labour markets, diminishing people’s exposure to risks and enhancing their capacity to protect themselves against hazards and interruption/loss of income’. Their focus is on better managing income risks that leave people vulnerable.

The ILO’s focus is on income security, so the emphasis is on workforce and working conditions, the same argument that is forwarded to promote its decent work agenda: ‘… the provision of benefits to households and individuals … to protect against low or declining living standards’. All three definitions are limited to the formal employment sector. UNRISD, however, follows a different definition and its focus is on situations that adversely affect people’s well-being. UNICEF, with its mandate on children, has recently articulated its vision of social protection that recognizes children’s capacity to be individuals in their own right.

The social protection floor promoted by the UN and led by WHO and ILO is conceptualized as an integrated set of social policies designed to guarantee income security and access to social services ‘for all’, paying special attention to vulnerable groups and protecting and empowering people across the life cycle.3

None of the definitions above encompass care work, domestic work, community work, subsistence work, culturally traditional work and more. While the different institutions within the UN system understand the concepts of social protection or the social protection floor differently, they agree that social protection is about protection from adversity.

Researchers at the Institute of Development Studies perceive social protection to be much more than protecting incomes and enhancing labour market outcomes (Devereux and Sabates-Wheeler, 2004). They argue that it should address the vulnerabilities associated with ‘being poor’, including the risks of ‘becoming poor’, particularly during periods of economic crisis. It should also address the environment of social injustice arising from prevailing inequalities in the society and the law.4

In this definition, social protection includes a range of policy interventions that protect the vulnerable against livelihood risks, such as poverty, lack of access to basic services and discriminatory treatment. Consequently, social protection promotes the human rights of marginalized groups and individuals, particularly women, children, the elderly and persons with disability.

Social protection policy has four distinct but interconnected roles – protection, prevention, promotion and transformation (Davies and McGregor, 2009). While each of these roles entails a certain set of actions (such as disability benefit, pension schemes, cash or in-kind transfers, amendment of legal provisions), they are mutually reinforcing. Each has a multiplier effect on the impact of social protection policies.5

Whatever the governance system, a core responsibility and a measure of legitimacy of governments is to protect the people they govern against physical harm or economic hardship (Devereux et al., 2011: 9). Therefore, the central role for governments in protecting people from adversity is underscored. However, with the global economic downturn, there is a hollowing out of the welfare State, and this creates more unpaid work.

Given the above, how can the definition of social protection capture the lives of women and other outsiders? How can policies targeted at protection and prevention go beyond limited economic outcomes and address access to assets and property and other anticipatory transformative policy measures for the dispossessed and disenfranchised?

In the next section, we present the Commonwealth Secretariat’s research findings on unpaid HIV care in eleven countries and situate the experiences of GROOTS, a grassroots mobilization initiative by rural women HIV carers in Kenya, serendipity educational endowment fund (SEEF), a community led initiative in Papua New Guinea for education of children affected by HIV, Indlunkhulu, an initiative by traditional chiefs for HIV orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) in Swaziland and an assessment of CCTs from Latin America.

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Situating agency and transformation

The Commonwealth Secretariat’s Who Cares? research that privileged the voices of unpaid HIV carers in households in diverse settings6 in eleven countries shows that women and children, particularly girls, bear the greatest burden in families affected by HIV. The findings revealed that carers experienced time-poverty and had:

  • no choice;
  • no hope, no help, only relentless work;
  • no free time, no holiday, no respite;
  • lost opportunities – education, training and employment;
  • encountered violence including rape, threats and harassment;
  • faced stigma that breaks down traditional support;
  • reasons to reject food aid basket given the overwhelming stigma associated with ‘AIDS’ food;
  • faced discrimination in hospitals and clinics;
  • constant uncertainties.

Women are caregivers by default and have no choice in this matter, even when they themselves are infected and need care. In addition, women and girls almost always face the greatest degree of stigma and social discrimination. Women’s unpaid care work is relentless and unceasing – they are not available to enter formal work and they do not have the time or resources to train. Yet these issues are not recognized in current social protection discourse, even though women’s care work, in effect, subsidizes the cost of care.

Violation of rights of carers is manifest in various ways: they are denied the rights to dignity, to rest and leisure, to a decent standard of living and to take part in the life of the community, due to social discrimination. More importantly, unpaid carers are denied the basic capability of every individual to live a normal life, and therefore are in a condition of ‘capability servitude’ and time-poverty.7 The current social protection architecture does not take into account this violation of the rights of carers.


The revision of laws for OVC, in particular issues of land-grabbing and lost inheritance, has been a key concern of the GROOTS initiative in Kenya. GROOTS Kenya, a national network of 2,500 grassroots women’s self-help groups, began organizing a Home-Based Care Alliance in 2003. This is a bottom-up federation of home-based caregivers that aims to create greater coordination and peer learning to advocate for recognition of their work, greater integration into formal health responses to HIV and strengthened livelihoods. Immediate impacts related to work and livelihoods are seen in the way carers have been supported in their work, which, in some cases, has reduced their workload. Self-help, savings and credit, revolving loans and income generating initiatives have been established to help caregivers make a living. Caregivers have also spearheaded the creation of Watch Dog Groups, partnerships between community members and government officials to prevent and redress land grabbing from widows and orphans.

By increasing information sharing the Alliance has built the influence of caregivers and enabled them to raise their effectiveness, link the government to NGOs, eliminate duplication and fund the people most in need in their communities. As a result, when new programmes and resources come into communities, they can be of immediate benefit because they can build on, and invest in, the Alliance’s organizing and community mobilization efforts. The community social protection network that has emerged has adopted the ‘transformative social protection’ approach (Asaki and Hayes, 2011).

Serendipity educational endowment fund

In Papua New Guinea, about 80 percent of the population lives within the informal economy. Indigenous knowledge systems and traditional social mechanisms such as reciprocity, access to communal lands, forests and communal fisheries, custom farming and kinship social support, operate as social protection mechanisms.

OVC tend to be supported by their extended clan groups or the wantok; however, extended families are much more likely to reject HIV orphans. What happens to traditional social protection systems when patriarchy, stigma and discrimination are part of the picture? How can social protection measures respond to such situations? SEEF found that children whose parents are infected by HIV are often lost to school long before their parents die. Factors such as tension in the family, unaffordable school fees, family breakdown when a parent leaves or dies often result in situations where the children are stripped of their inheritance, of land or home and more. Supporting HIV-affected children through education was an unmet need that SEEF aimed to fulfil by developing guiding principles founded on community values, realities on the ground and, importantly, respect for the rights of the children.


The Indlunkhulu or traditional chiefs’ fields for OVC initiative began in 2004 as a programme of the Swaziland National Emergency Response Council on HIV and AIDS. The initiative sought to revive a tradition where chiefs set aside fields in order to provide for destitute members of their communities, or those unable because of illness, accident or old age to cultivate fields for themselves. The tradition was found to offer a long-term solution to food security for OVC. By 2007, 360 of the 369 Swazi Chiefdoms were participating in the Indlunkhulu programme.
An Indlunkhulu committee is established in participating communities. The committee compiles a list of those to benefit from the scheme in each community and is responsible for allocating inputs (tractor services, seeds, etc.) between beneficiaries. The criteria for beneficiaries have been found to leave a fairly broad scope for local interpretation and causes of OVC vulnerability such as disability may be overlooked. Complementing this initiative is a programme funded by the Japanese Aid Agency that allocates 0.5 hectare plots in 320 chiefdoms to be farmed individually by child-headed households. These farms recognize the erosion of social cohesion caused by the loss of customary land entitlement of children who have become orphans and seeks to redress this.

Conditional cash transfers

In Latin America, CCT programmes have become the principal form of government assistance targeted at poor population. Almost all the governments of the region have one of these types of programmes, and in some countries such programmes have become the central axis of their assistance policies. The two most distinctive characteristics are: (i) a cash transfer, established at basic or minimum levels; (ii) conditionalities that typically involve ensuring that children are regularly attending school and receiving health care.
These two defining characteristics of CCTs are based on the following public policy goals: (i) alleviate income poverty; (ii) contribute to the strengthening of children’s human capital, in an attempt to break the inter-generational cycle of poverty. These are highly feminized programmes, first because women are seen as ‘natural’ caregivers, and second because it is assumed that they will in fact use the money for the children’s benefit.

Few studies address the impact of these programmes on women’s lives.8 Those research findings can be summarized as follows: (i) CCTs provide women access to a monetary income that they would otherwise lack, given the difficulties they face in the labour market; (ii) they effectively reduce income poverty, especially extreme poverty, improving women’s (and their children and families) material quality of life; (iii) the better economic position also helps to improve women’s self-esteem, and sometimes improve women’s position in decision-making processes within households.

Despite these positive impacts, CCTs also: (i) reinforce (by means of conditionalities) the role of women as carers; (ii) increase women’s unpaid care work; (iii) reproduce a ‘cycle of inactivity’, by creating disincentives for women’s participation in the labour market; (iv) do not foster men’s participation in care activities; (v) do not provide space for women’s voices; (vi) do not transform poor women’s lives, but rather freeze them in a situation of being passive recipients of a minimum income support.

In a way, CCTs represent an attempt to extend the mechanisms of social protection to a population that is structurally excluded from the majority of such protections. This objective in itself is valuable. However, we should question whether CCTs represent an endpoint in this goal, or if they should be better considered as a starting point.

From a feminist perspective, CCTs provide a reasonable platform to move to a more transformative social protection scheme, particularly when the above-mentioned weaknesses are addressed along with actions to guarantee equal access to economic resources, labour opportunities and protection from adversities. Redistribution of paid and unpaid work, as well as provision of care to all, with those who care prioritized, are keystones of a more just social protection paradigm. Such an approach might provide women and men with the needed support to choose the lives they want to live.

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A feminist framework for social protection

The phrase ‘social protection’ can ring a warning bell for feminists. Historically, feminists struggled against policies for the social protection of women: the bans on women working underground, for example in mines, the bans on women entering the defence forces or the police. Policies such as these reflected the beliefs of policymakers about what was seemly and appropriate for women. To the extent that women themselves subscribed to these particular paradigms of femininity, they also reflected women’s views. But they did not reflect women’s capabilities (Shivdas and Mukherjee, forthcoming 2013) and they were not a result of women being given the spaces and the resources to work these issues out for themselves.

A reminder of past social protection policies serves to highlight considerations that need to be borne in mind in developing a feminist approach to social protection. The modern day version of the policymakers’ question might be: ‘What do women and children need to protect them from adversity?’ This is a social engineering question. It is essentially instrumentalist and, for us, disempowering. At best it is benignly paternal. The feminist question might be: ‘What would make our lives easier, safer and more free, and what would make us more valued, productive, have more life opportunities, have more power?’ These questions come from a different paradigm of what it is to be a woman.

Yakin Ertürk9 argues that, as feminists, we need to link closely our paradigms, policies and practices. Heeding this, we are committed to engage with the discourse and the paradigms of social protection. In a feminist approach, these would reflect feminist values and ways of seeing and engaging with the world. The literature on social protection is saturated with the language of vulnerability and risk. This is not our language, our way of talking about ourselves. The concept of vulnerabilities disempowers, reducing our agency and productivity to trembling inadequacy in the face of adversity. The language of risk is not ours. We are, paradigmatically, ‘copers’, the ones who find ways to feed, clothe and educate our children, to keep depression at bay, to encourage hope, to care for our sick. We need to be supported from these strengths and capabilities rather than reduced to the vulnerable to be protected.

The discourses and paradigms of the literature of social protection do not reflect the texture and integrity10 of our lives. Our lives are complex. We may speak the language of the burden of care, for care is burdensome, but that is not all that it is. Those for whom we care are often, when this is unpaid care, those we love and in caring for whom we find joy and fulfilment, along with the crippling demands that are involved. We need a language of agency, of anticipation, of contribution, of productivity, of complexity.

The policies of social protection need to capture the patchwork nature of women’s lives as well as their texture and integrity, the cohesiveness of the disparate parts, the ways in which women’s fractious and assorted responsibilities and coping strategies are woven into a cohesive whole. The paid work in our lives cannot be taken out of this patchwork quilt and treated as a divisible entity, different in quality and kind from the work we do to stitch together family, community, church, schools, friendships and the other aspects of our lives.

Equally importantly, feminists understand that beyond the choice of policies lie the processes and interventions through which the policies are implemented, Ertürk’s link between policies and practices. Feminist principles require that programmes be conceptualized in a language of respect and empowerment and delivered in respectful and empowering ways.

The implementation processes and interventions must reflect feminist values and practices. The critiques of Latin American feminists (see above), and increasingly of African11 and Middle Eastern12 feminists, of CCT programmes show that where their implementation is dependent on women’s (unpaid) involvement, they have been exploitative of women and less than efficient.

Social protection programmes can reflect, reinforce or worsen existing inequities and patterns of stigma and discrimination or they can both protect and transform.

Feminist principles move social protection programmes from women as passive recipients of handouts to women as active participants in the gaining of their entitlements. GROOTS supports women to become engaged in creating and protecting their own welfare, and in the process women are energized and their lives transformed.

Feminist social protection practices not only respond to adversity, they challenge the social relationships, cultural values and structural forces that underlie adversities. They do this particularly by drawing women together to act collectively for social justice and change. They transform the relationships, forces and abuses of power that are responsible for the need to protect from adversity.

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1 The Commonwealth is an association of 54 countries from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, the Pacific and North America with shared values of democracy and development and a common legal heritage.

2 The point that ‘care has its own rhythm and logic’ was made by Naila Kabeer at the AWID Forum 2012.

3 Bachelet Report page 9, quoting the United Nations Chief Executives Board.

4 Devereux and Sabates-Wheeler suggest a conceptual and an operational definition of social protection, which has been widely used in the literature. Conceptual: All public and private initiatives that provide income or consumption transfers to the poor, protect the vulnerable against livelihood risks, and enhance the social status and rights of the marginalized with the overall objective of reducing the economic and social vulnerability of poor, vulnerable and marginalized groups. Operational: All initiatives, both formal and informal, that provide social assistance to extremely poor individuals and households; social services to groups who need special care or would otherwise be denied access to basic services; social insurance to protect people against the risks and consequences of livelihood shocks; and social equity to protect people against social risks such as discrimination or abuse.

5 Protection measures provide relief from deprivation and include traditional safety net instruments, social assistance and social services for poor individuals or groups who need special care. For example, old age pensions or pensions for widows. Preventive measures seek to prevent deprivation and deal directly with poverty alleviation. They include social insurance for people who have fallen, or might fall, into poverty and can include formal systems and informal mechanisms, such as women’s self-help groups and cooperative microcredit societies. Promotive measures address the longer-term dimensions of social policy, which seek to enhance livelihood strategies through asset protection and access to common property resources. Examples include employment guarantee schemes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) in India and the Extended Public Works Programme (EPWP) in South Africa. Transformative forms of social protection are designed to address the underlying social structures that are at the root of social vulnerabilities. More than a programmatic approach, transformative social protection entails changes to the regulatory framework to protect socially vulnerable groups against discrimination and abuse, such as women and children affected by the HIV epidemic. The GROOTS initiative in Kenya, which protects women’s land rights, is an example.

6 Bangladesh – HIV+carer for IV drug user husband; Botswana – carer tending to aunt; Canada – woman prisoner cared by mother; Guyana – sex worker caring for dying sister in hospital; India – sex worker caring for aunt; Jamaica – gay man caring for partner; Namibia – grandmother caring for orphaned grandchildren, positive carer tending to extended family; New Zealand – transgender cared by partner, parents and sister; Nigeria – positive Muslim woman cared by sister; Papua New Guinea – mother caring for dying daughter, carer looking after sister and brother-in-law; Uganda – child carer looking after mother and raising siblings.

7 ‘Capability servitude’ describes a condition where a person’s dignity and freedom are circumscribed by an inability to break away from a situation of constant work and no leisure, especially for unpaid women carers in HIV-affected households (Waring et al., 2011).

8 For a comprehensive review of research findings, see Rodríguez Enríquez (2011). For findings specific on each programme/country, confront references in that publication.

9 See Yakin Ertürk in this issue of Development.

10 See Marilyn Waring in this issue of Development.

11 Esther Mwara Muiru, AWID Forum 2012.

12 Hania Sholkamy ‘What would a Feminist CCT Programme Look Like? Pathways of Women’s Empowerment’, Vhttp://www.pathwaysofempowerment.org/Egypt_CCTs.pdf.

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Asaki, Becca and Shannon Hayes (2011) ‘Leaders, Not Clients: Grassroots women’s groups transforming social protection’, Gender and Development 19(2): 241–253. | Article |
Davies, Mark and J. Allister McGregor (2009) Social Protection: Responding to a global crisis, www.ids.ac.uk/files/dmfile/SocialProtectionDaviesandMcGregor.pdf,accessed 10 July 2012.
Devereux, Stephen, J. Allister McGregor and Rachel Sabates-Wheeler (2011) ‘Introduction: Social protection for social justice’, IDS Bulletin 42(8), November, United Kingdom: Institute of Development Studies; University of Sussex.
Devereux, Stephen and Rachel Sabates-Wheeler (2004) ‘Transformative Social Protection’, IDS Working Paper, No. 232, United Kingdom: University of Sussex.
Kandiyoti, Deniz (1998) ‘Gender, Power and Recontestation: “Rethinking bargaining with patriarchy” ’, in Cecile Jackson and Ruth Pearson (eds.) Feminist Visions of Development: Gender, analysis and policy, London: Routledge.
Kidman, Rachel, James A. Hanley, Geoff Foster, S.V. Subramanian and S. Jody Heymann (2012) ‘Educational Disparities in AIDS-Affected Communities: Does orphanhood confer unique vulnerability?’ Journal of Development Studies 48(4): 531–548. | Article |
Mukherjee, Anit, Elizabeth Reid, Marilyn Waring and Meena Shivdas (2012) ‘Social Protection – A question of delivering on rights and resources’, Commonwealth Secretariat Discussion Paper No. 13, April, London.
Rodríguez Enríquez, Corina (2011) ‘Programas de transferencias condicionadas de ingreso e igualdad de género. Por dónde anda América Latina?’ Santiago: Cepal. Serie Mujer y Desarrollo 109.
Shivdas, Meena and Anit Mukherjee (forthcoming 2013) ‘Whose Rights Count? Unpaid HIV Care and the Economics of Dignity – A research journey with Marilyn Waring’, in Margunn Bjørnholt and Ailsa McKay (eds.) Counting on Marilyn Waring, Bradford, ON: Demeter Press.
Waring, Marilyn, Robert Carr, Anit Mukherjee and Meena Shivdas (2011) Who Cares? Economics of Dignity, London: Commonwealth Secretariat.


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