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Female Hardship and Latin American Anti-poverty Programmes: Moving Forward

By Iulia Cristiana Vatau-

Source: Violeta Schmidt/Reuters

The notion that poverty and household hardship have a female face has been at the forefront of economic development and policymaking since its international recognition at the 1995 Fourth Women’s Conference in Beijing. As the UN and other bodies were starting to consider the role of women in the international agenda for sustainable development and poverty alleviation at the turn of the 21st century, Latin American countries were dealing with their very own distinctive reckoning in public policymaking. Crippled by clientelist practices, inefficiency, as well as prolonged and consistent economic instability, social protection programmes became the focus of a regional trend of political reform that was congruent with the increasing feminisation of household hardship internationally.

This is the context in which the modern cash transfer programmes, known as Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) emerged, now regarded as one of the most important regional innovations of the past two decades. With a wider reach than the alternative of social insurance programmes conditioned to formal employment, CCTs focus on offering cash benefits through a targeting mechanism, whilst attaching household co-responsibilities. The objectives are to alleviate immediate material deprivation, as well as to overcome the intergenerational transmission of low economic status by handing households money with the promise that they invest in human capital. Yet, with women acting solely as conduits and access being conditional on their role as mothers and home carers, the CCT system raises many questions in terms of its capability to tackle gender disparities and power imbalances. As more generations and households have gained beneficiary status, little to no change has occurred in female economic mobility. This leaves many questions: what is going wrong? Why is feminisation in Latin America failing? And how can we move forward?

Approaching Poverty Beyond Income

One of the major obstacles that hinder the success of Latin American CCT programmes in lifting women out of poverty, as well as of larger similar developmental initiatives around the globe, is the very manner in which they conceptualise poverty and subsequently choose how to “treat” it. Very often, they refer to poverty as being solely dependent on income status and consequently the focus of these transfers is to supplement overall household earnings. However, as many academics and international organisations have come to observe, female poverty is more intersectional and is closely tied to power dynamics within the household, as well as time constraints and asset control. These deprivations, while mostly left unmeasured in policymaking, can often have a larger impact on the economic welfare of women.

But what makes CCTs so distinct to similar programmes and so particularly damaging to its female beneficiaries? After all, most anti-poverty initiatives focus solely on income, it is not a problem of CCTs alone. The issue with CCTs specifically is not necessarily that they do not account for time and power poverty, it is the fact that they are amplifying them.

Through their requirements and attached co-responsibilities, women are constructed not just as mothers, but as good mothers and household keepers, with cash being conditional on modelling “appropriate female behaviour”. Thus, what we see is a wider feminisation of responsibility and obligation. Women are required to ensure that children graduate school and attend health checks, but they are also required to engage in training sessions, voluntary work and physical collection of monies. The Colombian programme ‘Familias en Accion’ and Peru’s ‘Juntos’, have, for example, both incorporated a wide array of compulsory non-paid work, from community facilitating to conscious raising, for women.

Activities that might initially seem empowering can become, as such, significant sources of increased time poverty, meaning that the participation of women in the workforce becomes extremely limited. Intra-household power dynamics are also left virtually unscathed since most of the voluntary work and responsibilities are targeted towards women with little to no inclusion of men. While Peru’s ‘Juntos’ programme has made active efforts recently to change its design and address these integrated methodologies, others such as ‘Familias en Accion’ and even Brazil’s ‘Bolsa Familia’, one of the first and most extensive Latin American CCT programme, have remained the same.

An even starker contrast between what is promised and what is delivered can be observed in Nicaragua’s Red de Proteccion Social (RPS). Modelled after Mexico’s Progresa/ Oportunidades and sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank, RPS has long been cited as one of the most successful CCTs. Yet, when looking at intra-household power dynamics, RPS has done little in alleviating gender violence and femicide rates which are amongst the highest in the region. While it has facilitated child school enrolment, it is clear that, in line with the other Latin American CCTs, women’s role is equated to that of caregivers. In this case, the price of this commitment to gender subjectivities is tragically far more visible.

Although many still assert that these programmes have had an immensely positive impact on the wellbeing of its female beneficiaries, a closer look at the treatment of female-headed households adds an additional point of contention. Regarded as the poorest of the poor, as well as arguably one of the most obvious units of measurement when looking at gendered poverty, female-headed households (FHHs) are facing a double challenge in accessing the human capital building opportunities offered by CCTs. Either they are not targeted due to the narrow definition of lacking a male adult in the family, which, unfortunately, does not always reflect the reality on the ground, or, the cost of lost earnings from participating (due to the time they have to give up in participating in required non-paid activities) is so high, that female heads may be forced to quit the programme altogether. Even when looking through the lens of children as a target group, as Nicaragua’s RPS is framed, children from female-headed households are much more likely to be excluded from CCTs than those from male-headed households.

Looking into the Future of CCTs

The shortcomings of CCTs in addressing some of the most prevalent gendered socio-economic issues in Latin America are not few and far between. It is clear that policymakers, whether intentionally or not, have designed a model that not only fails to serve its target beneficiaries but equally encumbers their social mobility and struggle for equality. While we should refrain from mistaking correlation for causation, it is hard not to trace some of the appalling gender rights situations that countries like Nicaragua find themselves in to flawed programmes such as CCTs. So how should we move forward? Do we need to radically reimagine the way CCTs are designed and implemented? Not quite.

One of the major milestones that these programmes need to surpass is their gendered limitations: from the targeting process of beneficiaries to the very ways co-responsibilities and voluntary work are shared within the household. Encouraging men, as well as women, to engage in community facilitators roles and NGO training is one way to balance the traditional intra-household hierarchy. Going beyond these traditional societal stereotypes would equally allow for more accurate categorisation and integration in CCTs of female-headed households. It also goes without saying that it would also be more inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community which is severely neglected by the current anti-poverty policy model.

Ultimately when we look at gender stereotypes and the way co-responsibilities are shared, these small but impactful changes feed significantly in approaching the issue of poverty beyond the facet of income. Poverty is complex: it involves assets, time, power dynamics both within and outside the household. A CCT that does not cater to these and does not acknowledge the ways in which women within a household are traditionally in an inferior position when it comes to these units of measurement, cannot succeed in its goal of economic empowerment.



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