Published on Let's Talk Development

Designing social protection programs that empower women

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Photo: World Bank / Sambrian Mbaabu Photo: World Bank / Sambrian Mbaabu

COVID-19 has thrown the world into crisis. Increasingly, it is evident that women and girls are bearing the brunt of the burden. 

Women are disproportionately affected by the contraction in employment resulting from the pandemic. They are more likely to be engaged in vulnerable forms of work (like subsistence self-employment and domestic work), and they are overrepresented in sectors with some of the largest economic disruptions, like hospitality and retail. Their care responsibilities have increased disproportionately compared to men, due to gender norms related to caring for sick family members and out-of-school children. School closures are putting girls at risk of unequal access to distance learning, permanent school drop-out, child marriage, and sexual abuse. Mobility restrictions and stress have led to a rise in gender-based violence, while lockdown measures are likely exacerbating social isolation and limiting access to information and support services.

Innovating social protection programs

Around the world, leaders have pledged to “build back better” from the COVID-19 pandemic, and social protection programs have emerged as a core policy response. Currently, 195 countries or territories have expanded or introduced social protection measures in response to COVID-19.

Previous experience can teach us what we can do to support women during and beyond the pandemic. Yet, even with comprehensive guidance on ways to design gender-sensitive social protection, programs often fail to engage women beyond targeting them as an avenue to improve household welfare through their traditional roles as caregivers. While social protection systems have been demonstrated to deliver on various dimensions of women’s empowerment, few programs deliberately set out to do so. Realizing the potential social protection holds for women and girls in the context of COVID-19 requires experimentation, measurement, and learning. 

For example, in an evaluation of a livelihood support program for women in northern Nigeria, the World Bank’s Africa Gender Innovation Lab compared the impacts of delivering an unconditional cash transfer in large lump installments or in smaller, more frequently distributed payments. Quarterly cash transfers yielded the same positive impacts on women’s work, household food security, and asset investment as cash transfers distributed monthly. Thus, a simple design adaptation enabled lower implementation costs and fewer required interactions, providing an approach to potentially limit the risk of spreading COVID-19 in situations where digital payment systems are not an option.


In the face of this pandemic, there is an overwhelming sense of urgency to implement quickly and limited bandwidth to consider the full array of programming possibilities. 

At the same time, there is an unprecedented opportunity to test ideas that were considered unorthodox until recently. For example, Togo has introduced an unconditional cash transfer scheme, with larger benefits for women, delivered through mobile money. Burkina Faso has similarly announced plans to expand its social safety net program to include a solidarity fund for women vendors. Argentina introduced paid leave for all workers who have dependent children and care needs due to the pandemic.


These efforts to extend social protection are exciting. We should attempt to measure their impact, and explore design variations to maximize women’s empowerment. For example, might labelling a top-up payment to recognize women’s care work shift perceptions about its value? Can complementary messaging nudge men and boys to take on a fairer share of domestic chores? And how might emergency cash transfers be leveraged to reduce gender-based violence?
These are just some of the questions policymakers and stakeholders could explore. We don’t know what we don’t know, but now is the time to innovate and learn. 


Alessandra Heinemann

Senior Social Protection Specialist and Gender Lead

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