Are Cash Transfers More Harm Than Help to Women?

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Economic strife and educational disparity are big problems in developing countries worldwide. Conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs are a form of welfare that operates exactly as described: The government or charity involved doles out money predicated on conditions that usually involve public school enrollment and health checkups, among other welfare-based incentives.

Unlike unconditional cash transfer programs—which make use of far looser parameters regarding the distribution of money—the conditions created by CCTs have been found to incentivize those receiving the economic boost, and the programs have led to a general increase in the overall use of educational and health systems by those living in poverty.

The programs have produced positive results in terms of economic viability and education, which feeds the primary objective of improving the welfare and development of children in low-income countries.

As it turns out, however, cash transfers can also play a role in increasing gender equality.

Though the issue varies across the globe—some countries are inevitably more gender equal than others—it’s usually amplified in the households of low-income countries, where the division of labor and domestic chores is tilted toward women.

That’s part of the motivation behind CCTs targeting the mothers within beneficiary households, providing them with the cash to improve the welfare and health of their children. According to Roberto Castro, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, explains the goal of transferring the money to mothers is twofold.

“The basis for this gender-specific targeting is that providing resources to women is a more effective way of reaching children in target households,” Castro tells BTRtoday. “And it may also help empower women within the household and community.”

In November 2009, Castro co-authored a study that was aimed to define whether CCTs, specifically Mexico’s Oportunidades cash transfer program, first implemented in 1997, held any association with violence against women.

Arguments can easily move in both directions. While cash transfers would ideally empower women in households where they are economically downtrodden, the influx of money, as the study posits, “may increase the incentives for male partners to use violence or threats of violence to (re)gain control over household resources or decision-making.”

In prior analyses of the programs, quoted in Castro’s study, both seemed to bear out. One found that in households receiving small transfer amounts, women were less likely to be victims of physical abuse, while an increase of domestic violence was reported among those receiving larger transfer amounts. Another analysis, however, found that women in beneficiary households were less likely to experience physical abuse—though emotional violence against them increased greatly.

“Physical violence has direct consequences on women’s health and can be lethal,” Castro says. “However, many women report that psychological violence is in many senses more damaging than physical violence, for it hurts the self.”

The World Bank reports that one in three women have been a victim of domestic violence in the course of their lifetime. According to the text studying Oportunidades, which focused on rural Mexico, seven percent of married women there experienced physical abuse at the hands of their male partners within the 12 months prior to reporting it.

However, as Castro explains, the study found neither a positive or negative correlation between the cash transfer program and the incidence of domestic violence.

“Both sides [of the argument] seemed to be fully convinced that these programs either increase or decrease violence against women,” he says. “The results show that reality is far more complex than those two simple positions. The relationship between these programs and violence is not clear cut.”

As Castro sees it, the results of the study confirm the need to carefully evaluate social problems rather than instinctively adopting a political position without the evidence to support it. It also reaffirms that gender inequality is not based entirely in money or economic opportunities.

“The root cause of gender inequality is the patriarchal system which structures the entire society,” Castro says. “Gender inequality is present not only in family relations, but everywhere, such as job opportunities, school and educations, and so forth.”

Improvements have been made over the years; in fact, according to The World Bank, reverse gender gaps have been found in certain areas, such as male school-dropout rates in the Caribbean. Despite those developments, though, 62 million girls globally remain out of school. In addition, only 23 percent of low-income countries have achieved gender parity—defined as the relative access to education of males and females—on a primary level, and only 15 percent have achieved it on a secondary level.

Though social programs such as cash transfers might provide women in low-income countries with some empowerment, they alone can’t solve the issue on a large scale. Achieving global gender equality would require tremendous social change on a global level, which remains infeasible in some areas of the world where women’s rights and opportunities are most restricted.

Zero-tolerance policies against any manifestation of gender violence, either physical or emotional, could have a huge impact if properly promoted by government and civil organizations worldwide.

“Our studies have confirmed that the more men get involved in domestic chores, the less likely it is that violence exists in such a household,” Castro explains. “Thus, that cultural change should include the promotion of co-responsibility in regards to domestic chores and child-raising.”

It appears that CCTs targeting women is a clear aim to increase household co-responsibility. More data and time are required to paint a clearer picture, but given the lack of correlation to domestic violence, social welfare programs seem like a net positive in empowering and producing opportunities for women.