Social Safety Nets, Women’s Economic Achievements and Agency: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

There are increasing calls for social safety nets (SSNs) to be designed and implemented to promote women’s economic inclusion and agency, contributing to closing gender disparities globally. We investigate the extent to which SSNs achieve these goals and explore design and contextual features that promote impacts. We aggregate results from 1,067 effect sizes from 106 publications, representing 202,974 women across 42 low- and middle-income countries. We show robust and highly significant pooled effects for all outcomes (hedges’ g = 0.103, p<0.001), with similar magnitude of effects for economic achievement and agency domains. These effects are robust for asset transfers, unconditional cash transfers and social care services, while those for public works are of comparable magnitude but marginally significant. Impacts for conditional cash transfers and in-kind transfers are small and either marginally significant or insignificant. Impacts on economic achievement are driven by productive work (participation and intensity), savings, assets and expenditures, while those for agency are driven by voice, autonomy and decision-making. We conclude that SSNs have the ability to enhance women’s economic inclusion and agency, however vary by intervention type. Nonetheless, challenges remain in implementation of gender-sensitive designs, as well as data gaps for certain regions, contexts and outcomes, which should be closed in future evaluations.

From the paper:

There is strong evidence that social safety nets (SSNs) improve women’s economic achievements and agency in low- and middle-income countries—a conclusion which holds for most intervention types. There is significant momentum at the global and international level to invest in systems and programs which ensure women benefit equally and to ensure gender gaps do not widen. Nonetheless, at the national-level, implementation of gender-sensitive designs remains a challenge. Our results indicate SSNs have the greatest potential to benefit women if they are designed using unconditional modalities with cash, asset, or care-based benefits, with some suggestion that complementary programming can boost impacts. In addition, we encourage policymakers and practitioners to adopt practical recommendations, including eliminating barriers that may limit women’s access to SSNs, extending coverage to previously excluded groups, investing in linkages with complementary services and prioritizing women’s leadership and political voice in decision-making structures. We encourage researchers to continue to close evidence gaps, with respect to understudied geographies, SSN typologies and outcomes. Future research should rigorously test design and operational components, unpack the role of contextual factors, including gender norms in delivering benefits for women and expand cost-benefit analysis to incorporate a gender lens.

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