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Conditional Cash Transfers – How Do They Affect Women? 

What are Conditional Cash Transfers?

Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) are poverty alleviation welfare schemes run by the government, which directly handover money to poor households for fulfilling particular conditions. Their main concept originated during the macroeconomic crisis of the mid-1990’s Latin America when the demand for social services like health and education from poorer households seemed to be going down. CCTs thus aimed to inspire behavioural change in people using financial incentives dependent on compliance with conditionalities like regular vaccinations, hospital check-ups, enrolment and attendance in school etc. Simple and effective, Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) have twofold benefits – firstly, they substantially help improve human resource indicators by improving poor women and children’s health and education. Secondly, they are demand-side interventions which provide secondary benefits like significantly boosting local consumption without cutting producers’ prices (as other poverty alleviation schemes may often do).

For instance, one such popular CCT with international acclaim is PROGRESA/Oportunidades, established in Mexico, 1997. It targeted people in extreme poverty with the aim to promote human development (especially children’s). Cash was transferred directly to women after the fulfilment of conditionalities. Studies have shown that PROGRESA/Oportunidades has been successful at reducing poverty, malnutrition in children, dropout rates in schools, child labour and has increased enrolment of school-age children. Other CCTs have similar structures and results – however, their effects on women empowerment are contested.

The Gender Perspective – How Do CCTs Impact Women?

Most CCTs consciously take a gendered approach towards poverty alleviation and are lauded for their contribution to women empowerment. Many specifically try to tackle the growing issue of feminization of poverty (an unfavourable change in the level of poverty of women and women led households) by making them direct beneficiaries and recipients of the cash transfers instead of men. In patriarchal, restrictive households especially, CCTs give women higher bargaining power against their husbands, in terms of decision-making and financial autonomy. However, when looked at closely, CCTs’ conception of women empowerment is utilitarian and deeply flawed. A major objective behind directly transferring cash to women is the expectation that they will spend the received cash wisely on health and education, especially of their children’s.

With heavy emphasis on child-centric schemes, a woman is first construed as the mother and the primary caretaker of the children, investing in whom would mean investing in the human resource development of the entire household. Men and fathers are excluded from the schemes, which lands all the caretaking burden on women alone. To get the promised money, women alone are responsible for fulfilling the prerequisite conditionalities and lifting their children out of poverty. Reinforcing the gendered division of labour, they are relegated to just caretakers, ironically stripping women of their individuality in an attempt to enhance their financial autonomy. Facilitating the wellbeing of their family and children is assumed to be empowering women, even though they are not necessarily empowered themselves. 

In fact, a qualitative research suggests that husbands accept their wives bringing in extra money as a rational choice, only so long as they continue to fulfil their gender roles. Thus, a mere transfer of money does not necessarily mean a transfer in power. Further, meeting all the requirements alone requires extra time and effort, which can be quite demanding and exhausting, especially with multiple children. And if time is understood as a resource, CCTs increase the time poverty experienced by most poor women who are already forced to dedicate majority of their time to invisible and unacknowledged domestic work. Further evidence shows that beneficiaries of CCTs spend more time on reproduction and care of their families than non-beneficiaries, which eats into not only their leisure or personal time, but also other income-generating activities. To make things worse, the quality of the services provided is not always good or consistent. In rural areas, women may walk long distances on foot to visit clinics, only to find them unserviceable or inadequate. The cost of travel and possibility of physical harm during such journeys may also pose a huge issue. As a result, CCTs in poorer countries especially are much less effective due to insufficient provision of public services.

Further, conditionalities can even make poor women more vulnerable to exploitation due to their susceptibility to be misused. Evidence from across countries shows the manipulative misuse of ‘shadow conditions’ by local officials like local government representatives, CCT employees, school and clinic staff – with the threat of programme suspension, vulnerable women have been forced to march in political parades and clean public spaces.

Better Alternatives

Unconditional Cash Transfers (UCTs) can be an immediate alternative to CCTs. These are schemes that give cash payments to the poor without any conditionalities. Another option is soft conditionalities, which are not punitive and have the scope of negotiable deadlines and requirements. Still, a valid concern is that UCTs do not ensure responsible expenditure and investments in human development. However, even though there is less data regarding the impact of UCTs than CCTs, they are cheaper to administer (due to no monitoring costs) and research (done in Kenya) shows that even UCTs can significantly increase household consumption and expenditure on healthcare and education. The same research also records an increase in the psychological wellbeing of women due to less stress and depression – an important consideration generally missing in women’s welfare schemes.

In fact, to genuinely empower women through any policy, the first thing that needs revision is our approach towards women’s welfare. First, welfare of women must not be confused with or substituted by the welfare of their households. Second, mothers and women must not be made the conduits of children’s development. It concretises gendered social roles, where equal delegation of childcare to men and fathers is required. Third, empowerment does not merely come through financial aid – simultaneous investment in safer transport and proper public services is crucial to actually make schemes beneficial for women. Lastly, how can women be empowered without including men in the conversation? Merely excluding men or targeting women is not enough – for redistribution of power on a micro level, targeted efforts need to be made towards men’s education and behavioural changes as well.

Riyosha is a second-year undergraduate pursuing Political Science and Mathematics at Ashoka University.

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