Gender and Social Policy in a Global Context


The past decade has witnessed a renewed interest in social policies, and some governments have increased social spending to soften the impacts of economic reform.  These changes have come in the wake of widespread realization of the failure of the neoliberal economic model to generate economic growth and dynamism and to reduce poverty.  Meanwhile, processes of political liberalization have opened spaces for social movements in many parts of the world to articulate demands for more inclusive social policies to mitigate the effects of market failures and to reduce inequalities.  However, despite the movement away from the standard neoliberal approach of the 1980s, and the increasing recognition given to ‘institutions’ and the state, there is little agreement on a number of critical issues, including the scope of social policy and the values underpinning it, as well as the role of the state as regulator and provider.

A gender perspective on social policies in the South (as in the North until quite recently) has remained on the margins of these debates even though in reality social policies are always filtered through social institutions (be it the family or community; markets, the care economy, or the public sector) that are in turn structured by gender.  Three important sets of findings emerge from the research that UNRISD undertook from 2003 to 2005, on the intersections between gender and social policy, covering a wide range of countries from diverse regional contexts.  These are highlighted below.

Paid Work, Unpaid Work, and Social Sector Restructuring

Despite the claims to universalism, welfare systems, and in particular social protection programmes, have tended to be stratified rather than inclusive, bringing into their fold only some privileged segments of the workforce (such as the military, state functionaries, or industrial workers).  Much of the rural sector as well as the large numbers working in the urban informal economy and in domestic service (a major employer of women) have been left out.  Normative assumptions about men’s and women’s roles (as ‘breadwinners’ and ‘mothers/carers’ respectively) have been surprisingly universal and enduring, even where many women engaged in paid work, sometimes continuously throughout their lives.  Yet it would be wrong to assume that women were absent from state social provisioning and protection altogether.  Not only did women make up a significant proportion of social security beneficiaries as wives and daughters of male workers, they were also direct beneficiaries of some public services (health, education) as well as being targets of population control programmes as well as so-called maternalist programmes aimed at mothers and their children.

Nevertheless, the small size of the formal economy in most developing countries meant that job security and work-related benefits remained privileges available to a relatively thin stratum of workers, predominantly men.  While these benefits could have been extended gradually to other sectors of the population by putting in place new eligibility criteria (underpinned by political coalitions), since the early 1980s there has been a global trend in the opposite direction.  Paid work is becoming increasingly informal and casual; workers are either losing their work-related social benefits or will never be able to obtain jobs that will give them such benefits.  Existing data show that the informal economy tends to be a larger source of employment for women than for men in most countries and that women informal workers tend to be over-represented in the more precarious and less remunerative segments of informal work.

If work-related social protection mechanisms are inherently masculinist (because of the gendered construction of paid work), are women faring any better with respect to public services and transfer payments that are supposedly citizenship-based?  Social sector reforms (health, education) in many countries have, among other things, entrenched the commercialization of public services through the imposition of ‘user fees’ and other charges (e.g. in health), expanded the role of private-for-profit providers, and shifted some of the unmet need for welfare onto families.

A common policy response to the exclusionary effects of ‘user fees’ has been the promotion of mutual health insurance and social health insurance (SHI) schemes.  Enrolment in the latter is very often employment-based.  In low-income countries some women may be covered in SHI in their own right or as dependants of employed men.  However, as income earners, global patterns show that women are less likely than men to be in formal sector employment and, if formally employed, tend to be concentrated in low-status, poorly paid occupations or lower-level positions.

In the education sector — the ‘jewel in the crown’ of neoliberal social policy — while progress in girls’ access to primary education has been impressive (though geographically uneven), the logic of ‘targeting’ which has been promulgated by donors has prioritized primary education, with some unforeseen implications.  Public social expenditure has in some contexts been re-allocated from higher education to primary education, ignoring the systematic inter-connections between different parts of the education system.  This has facilitated a greater role for commercial provision at the secondary level, which raises questions about affordability and access for both girls and boys from lower-income households and particular problems for girls in cultural contexts where parents prioritize sons’ education.  This is unfortunate given the fact that many of the benefits that girls reap from education (access to employment and contraception) materialize at the post-primary level.

The resurgence of interest in ‘productivist’ or ‘developmental’ social policy seems to be partly driven by long-standing anxieties about the disincentives that welfare ‘handouts’ can create for work effort.  For many low-income countries, governments express concern about the affordability of universal welfare systems, given the high rates of people living in poverty.  While it is of utmost importance for public policy to create economic dynamism and employment (‘decent’ employment, as ILO calls it), a problematic side to the ‘productivist’ logic is the way in which it undervalues and de-legitimizes unpaid forms of work, especially unpaid forms of care work which are essential for human welfare and economic growth.  Transfer payments tend to take on a Cinderella-like status for finance authorities, especially when they compensate women/mothers for their unpaid care work.  This has been the fate of family benefits in several countries undergoing transition and reform (e.g. Poland, the Czech Republic).  There needs to be a place for cash transfers and non-contributory income supports (such as child allowances, family benefits, and social pensions) — resisting the notion that these are ‘handouts’ for passive clients and highlighting the multiple ways in which they can enhance welfare and security and at times even kick-start some forms of local economic development.

States versus Markets?  Families, Households, and Communities

Yet resisting the undervaluation of unpaid care work requires addressing the nexus of relationships between states, markets, and ‘private’ institutions of families and communities.  Existing welfare state models are based on culturally and historically specific conceptions of the divisions between public and private, of the nuclear nature of the family, and of fairly differentiated institutional spaces occupied by the care economy and paid work.  In many developing countries diverse family forms and social networks remain important social and economic reservoirs.  This kind of social embeddedness is not only a primary source of identity for many; in the relative absence of market or state-provided support, it also structures women’s (and men’s) economic entitlements by offering them some access to resources, housing, childcare, and social security.

Yet it is also clear that informal social institutions are not always bearers of equality and justice, whether along gender or ethnic/race lines; nor do they operate as a ‘separate sphere’ in the way liberal theorists have suggested.  Indeed contemporary state reforms in many contexts have carried enormous implications for what is expected of families.  They show how ‘the familial’ can be deployed and naturalized to assist states’ reform of, and sometimes retreat from, social life.  The care burden imposed by the HIV/AIDS epidemic has exposed in a dramatic way the inadequacy of the assumptions about the unlimited coping capacities of ‘families’ and ‘communities’ and the ways in which state withdrawal can entrench gender inequalities.

Reform strategies that seek to decentralise service provision and to reinforce community agency and ‘self-help’ also have the potential to correspondingly reinforce the power of local traditional authorities and power-brokers.  The unintended consequence is that women’s reliance on social networks may restrict their attempts to democratize social relations.  Rather than challenging conventional notions about women’s work and responsibilities, the emphasis on families and communities in new social policy both expands their caring work and reinscribes their unequal access to social security.

Democratization, State Capacity, and Women’s Voice

Even with the recognition of the need for a more activist state in global lending institutions and the provision of more comprehensive social protection, in many developing countries the impetus to provide social protection was externally set, as part of the conditionalities of debt relief.  The combination of this factor with the weak tax base and small middle class in very poor countries had the effect of removing social policy from the arena of national politics.  These factors have consequences for the quality and financial sustainability of social programmes.  However, they also impact on the process of building a social consensus and on the political sustainability of social programmes.  Building programmes that provide protection beyond the ‘poorest of the poor’ becomes more difficult in the face of the combination of residualism promoted from above by global lending institutions and populist arguments that employed workers represent a ‘labour aristocracy’.

The state is a key institution as an organizer if not necessarily a provider of social protection and provisioning.  It is clear that states that are well-institutionalized are better able to translate political commitments into effective social policies and delivery systems.  Women clearly have an interest in making states more responsive and accountable to their citizens.  Neoliberal approaches to state reform in developing countries have, however, tended to undermine the capacity of states to be responsive to the needs and interests of women and in particular poor women.  The renewed interest in the state (in the governance paradigm) offers some opportunities for the creation of gender-responsive states.  But this would require that more attention be paid to developing political accountability to citizens and that women be seen as part of the ‘publics’ that need to be responded to and served or to whom the state must be accountable.

Related to the above point, there is a need for ‘thicker’ understandings of democracy that go beyond supporting multipartyism and the numerical increase of women in national parliaments.  Both of these are of course important prerequisites for reducing inequalities, but they need to be buttressed by deeper levels of political participation.  This would include developing the capacity of women’s organizations and civil societies in general to interpret and articulate the needs of different constituencies of women in policy terms.  It would also include more strategic use of political parties as vehicles of representation by pushing for social policies to become electoral issues.

Last, but not least, women have fought for the state to recognize their needs in various ways (including maternalist demand-making) but not always in ways that challenge the underlying power relations of gender.  In some countries the absence of strong feminist lobbies, or allies within political parties, has allowed the adoption of a residualist welfare model that has seriously undermined women’s social rights.  The difficulties in clearly articulating women’s needs in social policy terms appears to be as much a problem in the South as it is in the North.

Selected Reading

Hassim, S., ‘Women in African Parliaments: The Virtuous Circle of Representation’.  In G. Bauer and H. Britton (eds) Women in African Parliaments.  Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2006.

Huber, E. and J.D. Stephens, The Political Economy of Pension Reform in Latin America.  OPG no. 7, Geneva: UNRISD, 2000.

International Labour Organization, Women and Men in the Informal Economy: A Statistical Picture.  Geneva: ILO, 2002.

Lewis, Jane, ‘Gender and the Development of Welfare Regimes’.  In Journal of European Social Policy, vol. 2, no. 3, 1992.

Mhone, G., ‘Historical Trajectories of Social Policy in Post-Colonial Africa: The Case of Zambia’.  In T. Mkandawire (ed.) Social Policy in a Development Context.   Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2004.

Mkandawire, T., Targeting and Universalism in Poverty Reduction. PP-SPD 23, Geneva: UNRISD, 2006.

Nyamu-Musembi, C., For or against Gender Equality?  Evaluating the Post-Cold War “Rule of Law” Reforms in Sub-Saharan Africa, OPG no. 7, Geneva: UNRISD, 2005.

Razavi, S. and S. Hassim, Gender and Social Policy in a Global Context: Uncovering the Gendered Structure of “the Social”.  Basingstoke: Palgrave/UNRISD, 2006.

Tsikata, D., Lip Service and Peanuts: The State and National Machinery for Women in Africa.  Accra: Third World Network, 2000.

UNRISD, Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World, Geneva: UNRISD, 2005.

Vivian, J., ‘How Safe Are “Social Safety Nets”? Adjustment and Social Sector Restructuring in Developing Countries’. In J. Vivian (ed.) Adjustment and Social Sector Restructuring.   London: UNRISD/Frank Cass, 1995.

Shahra Razavi is Research Coordinator at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development in Geneva.  Shireen Hassim is a political scientist and lecturer, Department of Political Science, University of Witwatersrand.  This article sums up the most important results of the study that was published in a volume co-edited by Razavi and Hassim: Gender and Social Policy in a Global Context: Uncovering the Gendered Structure of “the Social” (Palgrave, 2006).  The article was first published in News from the Nordic Africa Institute No. 3 (October 2006); it is reproduced here for educational purposes.