Breaking the cycle of poverty: Empowering women through enhanced social protection in the Western Balkans

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A woman sits by the side of the road outside of Skopje, FYR Macedonia. Resilient, equitable social protection systems are needed to reduce poverty and empower women in the Western Balkans. Copyright: Tomislav Georgiev / World Bank

Despite progress in gender equality, women in the Western Balkans still face a higher risk of poverty.  The existing social protection systems, designed to reduce poverty and foster inclusion, often fall short in effectively reaching and supporting women. While efforts have been made to promote women’s inclusion through specific program design features, such as paying cash benefits to women as opposed to often male heads of households, a more comprehensive and holistic approach is needed to address the underlying challenges.

Employment as the foundation of effective social protection

Currently, the majority of social protection budgets in the Western Balkans are allocated to pensions, leaving limited resources for other programs that could support women facing economic hardships. Gender gaps in employment across the region are significant, with disparities ranging from 10 to 30 percentage points when compared to men. This not only deprives women of pension benefits in their own right in their later years but also perpetuates economic dependence, as formal employment serves as the primary gateway to such benefits in the Western Balkans.

To address women’s economic vulnerability in the region, the focus should be on increasing their participation in productive employment, which provides adequate protection against risks and vulnerabilities, such as those stemming from unemployment, illness, and old age.

Many women find themselves working in low productivity, often informal jobs, which restricts their access to social insurance, as these benefits are tied to formal employment.  The burden of unpaid care work further hampers their engagement in the formal labor market.

By addressing barriers to women’s access to formal employment, implementing targeted employment services, facilitating job placements, and ultimately, extending social security benefits to all workers, social protection programs can play a pivotal role in reducing poverty and fostering inclusion for women.

Challenges of categorical criteria in social assistance

Social assistance programs in the Western Balkans often determine eligibility through categorical criteria, which further reinforce women’s economic dependence and hinder their empowerment. These criteria, such as household composition or dependency status, implicitly discourage women from participating in the labor market, keeping them confined to caregiving roles.

In Kosovo, for example, to qualify for social assistance, one and only one household member should be registered as unemployed at the public employment services. Notably, over 90 percent of those registered are men. Due to the existing social protection setup, women have restricted access to social security benefits, especially in later years, and fewer choices when their children or dependents are no longer eligible for aid.

These categorical criteria fail to consider the actual welfare status of individuals and families, such as income and assets. As a result, social assistance spending in the Western Balkans disproportionately favors certain groups, regardless of their poverty level, while the poorest families receive a smaller share of funds compared to other countries in the region. Ongoing reforms present an opportunity to create a more inclusive and equitable social protection system that effectively reaches and supports women and those living in poverty.

Figure 1: Most social assistance spending in the Western Balkans is not targeted on poverty

Figure on most social assistance spending in the Western Balkans is not targeted on poverty
Sources: Social Protection Expenditure and Evaluation Database (SPEED).
Note: Spending on social assistance in Kosovo mostly includes pensions.

Figure 2: Despite its potential to reduce poverty, social assistance spending is not being effectively leveraged in the Western Balkans, as shown by low coverage of the poorest quintile with social assistance

Figure on despite its potential to reduce poverty, social assistance spending is not being effectively leveraged in the Western Balkans
Sources: Social Protection Expenditure and Evaluation Database (SPEED).

Promising reforms: Leading by example

Certain Western Balkan countries are already pursuing transformative social protection reforms. North Macedonia, for instance, exemplifies this with comprehensive reforms prioritizing needs over categories. By shifting from untargeted parental allowances to means-tested programs, the country ensures more suitable benefits exclusively for impoverished and vulnerable families.

Similarly, means-tested social pensions for the elderly extends the income support to those who do not qualify for social insurance due to their lack of formal employment. Consolidated assistance schemes have improved the coverage and responsiveness of social assistance, especially during the pandemic.

Bosnia and Herzegovina demonstrates a commitment to supporting women’s integration into the labor market through targeted spending on active labor market programs. By prioritizing hard-to-serve groups, including women, the country has made progress in promoting employment and reducing unemployment rates.

A gender lens for social protection reforms

The Western Balkans grapple with protecting vulnerable women and boosting their economic independence. Resilient, equitable social protection systems reduce poverty and empower women. Reforms must identify and aid needy households through welfare indicators that do not disadvantage women. Redirecting social spending to poverty-targeted assistance and employment-linked services is pivotal for poverty reduction and better living. Applying a gender lens fosters equitable, sustainable social protection, enabling women to work, meet needs, and overcome informal employment and “dependency” status.


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Sarah Coll-Black

Senior Social Protection Specialist, World Bank

Cornelius von Lenthe

Consultant, Social Protection and Jobs Global Practice, Europe and Central Asia

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