Building back better means designing cash transfers for women’s empowerment


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Sri sells food in a public square of her hometown in Java. Her business was doing well, and she thought that soon she and her three children would no longer need support from Indonesia’s Family Health Program (PKH), a conditional cash transfer program targeting poor households with children and expectant mothers. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Now Sri’s PKH benefit is the mainstay of support for her family.

G2P programs must tackle inequalities women face

Millions of women like Sri have seen their livelihoods, safety, and agency threatened by COVID-19, as they face fewer employment prospects, increased care responsibilities, and higher risk of domestic violence. With many women working in the informal sector, these factors are exacerbated. Ninety-five percent of women in Asia and 89 percent of women in Sub-Saharan Africa earn income through informal labor, which is characterized by insecurity and insufficient social protection. It is often not counted by governments and aid agencies. For G2P payments to truly benefit the most vulnerable, they must tackle these inequalities in benefits that women are facing due to COVID-19. 

At least 200 countries and territories have expanded or introduced social protection measures in response to COVID-19, reaching almost 1 billion new beneficiaries since March. Many are leveraging mobile money platforms to distribute emergency cash assistance to poor households safely and rapidly. Yet, low-income women who live in remote areas with limited connectivity, or who have low digital literacy, are less likely to access these benefits.

Putting women at the center of digital G2P payment programs can help countries to mitigate exclusion risks and maximize the impact on women and girls.  The World Bank recently partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Women’s World Banking, CGAP, and Stanford University to publish a brief explaining why women are at a heightened risk of exclusion during the rapid scaling and digitization of cash transfers and proposing policy options to maximize women’s inclusion.

Identifying and addressing barriers

The brief highlights five barriers to address: gender gaps in financial access, ID ownership, mobile phone ownership, inadequate recognition of gender gaps, and insufficient gender data and analysis.

The persistent gap in women’s financial access is exacerbated by discriminatory practices, lack of trust in banking institutions, and high costs. While the number of people excluded from the formal financial sector fell from 2.5 billion worldwide in 2011 to 1.7 billion in 2017, 56 percent of those still excluded are women.

Moreover, women face a combination of legal, economic, and social restrictions that contribute to a gender gap in ID coverage.  This has led to a gender gap in mobile phone ownership, as over 150 countries require government-issued IDs for SIM registration. Mobile phones are the most widely used channel for digital cash transfers. Yet, in developing countries, 165 million fewer women than men own a mobile phone.

Cash transfer programs that fail to identify gender gaps will exclude women in need. Insufficient sex-disaggregated data, including in information systems, create a partial understanding of gender disparities. Digital G2P programs should be informed by gender analysis that gives a comprehensive view of women’s roles, responsibilities, and needs , and how these have been impacted by COVID-19.

Digitize, direct, and design

Theresa is a mother of five living in Mungwi District, Zambia, where she grows vegetables to sell in her community. In 2018, Theresa received a Girls Education and Women’s Empowerment and Livelihood (GEWEL) grant digitally into an account she opened at a payment provider of her choice. Along with training, this enabled Theresa to expand her vegetable garden. Today, her business is so lucrative that she has started building a house and a grocery store.

Similarly in Nigeria, the Household Uplifting Programme has provided cash transfers directly to poor female caregivers since 2016. Olukemi is one of them. With the cash transfers, she has grown her locust bean business for export such that she can now feed her kids “until they are satisfied.” “From the moment she started receiving the cash transfer, she has been able to stand on her own,” said her husband.

The brief offers a framework for designing inclusive and impactful G2P programs that empower more women like Teresa and Olukemi. It makes three recommendations:

  1. Digitizing G2P payments can scale social protection programs at low cost and provide remote communities with easier access to funds. Digitization can help women to access money closer to where they live and work. Countries with advanced digital G2P payment systems can leverage retail agent networks to expand coverage.
  2. Depositing payments directly into women’s accounts is key. Direct cash transfers with women as the default recipient, such as those in Indonesia, Nigeria and Zambia, offer women safer access and increased control over funds. Direct payments create a gateway to savings, credit, and other financial services. Furthermore, when women are given the choice of provider, they are more likely to use their accounts actively and access other services.
  3. G2P programs can be smartly and efficiently designed to expand women’s opportunities. Simplifying the application and onboarding processes, and including grievance redressal systems, can improve women’s access to program benefits. Critically, programs should elevate women’s voices and ensure women play a leading role in decision-making.

The experiences of Indonesia, Nigeria and Zambia illustrate how countries can provide critical assistance to women like Sri, Theresa and Olukemi. Policymakers around the world are committed to building back better, and that starts by empowering women. 

The World Bank Group has partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to launch the G2Px Initiative. By bringing together expertise across critical sectors – including social protection, financial sector, governance, digital development, gender, and data protection – we aim to improve G2P payments at scale. Through G2Px, we are helping government-led social protection programs to quickly address the new reality emerging from the pandemic in an inclusive and empowering way.

For more information on how policymakers can design and implement digital cash transfer programs that include and empower women, please see the new brief, “Digital Cash Transfers in the Time of COVID-19: Opportunities and Considerations for Women’s Inclusion and Empowerment.” This brief is a joint product of the World Bank Group, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Women’s World Banking, CGAP, and Stanford University.

Chinwe U. Nnama-Okechukwu
September 10, 2021

I was engaged in an ethnographic study during the covid-19 lockdown in my community (Oko in Orumba North LGA of Anambra state south-east Nigeria). As a social worker with interest in child and family welfare services, I explored knowledge on covid-19 and utilization of preventive measures. I also explored impact of covid-19 on household income, women and child care. I found that many women were struggling to feed their children. These women were scared more with loosing their children to hunger and cared less about preventive measures on covid-19. With cash transfer, vulnerable families especially those headed by widows can provide for their family. I visited other nearby communities within my location and the story was same. It is important that we begin to talk about supporting poor households headed by women in rural communities in Nigeria with cash transfer. Social workers can drive the process by working with stakeholders in identified community to support women. Covid-19 is still here with us in Nigeria and people are not even concerned with adhering to preventive measures. People are rather concerned more with providing for their daily meal's and so throw caution to the winds. I am a woman and a social worker. I am ready to work with World Bank to reach out to women in my local community and other communities in my country. Loosing a woman due to covid-19 means increase in child vulnerability. A woman provides safety net for her biological children and even for other non biological children that have lost parental care. Support for a woman means building another generation. I am willing to be part of that support system that will create awareness on covid-19 for women group. I also want to be part of that team to identity vulnerable women caring for children and enhance their problem solving and coping capacity through cash transfer. Research and Impact stories are important tools that will help in the visibility of cash transfer in Nigeria.