Why social protection for women pays off

Promoting gender equality, inclusive growth and development

Woman working in rice field

Woman working in rice field

Images© Ursula Meissner

Social protection is a human right which many women around the world are still denied. Throughout their life cycles – due to their reproductive roles and as a result of social and cultural roles, norms and inequalities – women go through stages of particular vulnerability and therefore have specific needs. Compared to men, they are more likely to lose their income and to fall into poverty.

Social protection can be a powerful tool to reduce poverty and gender inequality. It can mitigate the effects of discrimination against girl children, the risk of unemployment women face when they are pregnant and give birth, and it can provide a safety net against poverty and lack of care for women at old age.

And yet, only a minority of women around the world are adequately covered by existing social protection schemes. This has detrimental effects not just on themselves but also on their families. On the occasion of International Women’s Day 2015, this article makes a case for more investments in women’s social protection as an engine for economic growth and social development.

Risks women face throughout the life cycle

In the course of their lives, women and girls face a number of specific risks and hardships which are linked to social and cultural norms and to their reproductive role in the family:

  • Girls often miss out on schooling and on food

In times of economic hardship, girls are more likely than boys to be taken out of school and to only eat after their brothers have eaten, often leaving them hungry and malnourished. Older girls are frequently taken out of school to care for younger siblings or to perform other domestic chores, in particular if the mother is working. Poor nutrition as well as lack of adequate healthcare and education early in life will have negative effects on girls’ long-term health and productivity as adults and thus on their future earnings potential. As a result, poverty is passed on from generation to generation.

Indonesia: Conditional cash transfers improve children’s health


This Indonesian mother is glad that a government programme ensures access to free health care for her children and herself. © GIZ Indonesia

In many poor households in Indonesia, mothers and younger children suffer from preventable health problems and older children fail to attend school on a regular basis. To change this situation, the government introduced a Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) Programme in 2007. The scheme specifically targets poor households with pregnant women and children under the age of 15. In order to receive their cash, mothers need to undergo health checks during pregnancy, ensure immunizations and regular health checks for their babies and children under five and they must make sure that their older children attend school regularly. Impact evaluations have shown that the cash transfers have contributed to better health outcomes amongst women and children and increased school attendance. German development cooperation supports the implementation of the cash transfer programme along with other areas of social protection in Indonesia.


  • Working women often lack any kind of social security

The majority of women around the world work in unregulated jobs for long hours with little pay and no security at the workplace. They lack health and unemployment  insurance, protection against employment injury and disability, and maternity protection.

The vast majority of social security schemes are only available to workers in the formal economy and thereby exclude a significant proportion of women who are overrepresented in the informal sector, in self-employment and among the working poor. Women are also more likely to work in casual, temporary and part-time jobs and in sectors with less protection through labour legislation, such as domestic work or as contributing family workers in agriculture.


Bangladesh: Social protection schemes for female workers in the garment sector


This young woman in Bangladesh is prepared to work hard to contribute to her family’s income. Social protection systems can help her stay healthy and productive. © GIZ/Shumon Ahmed

80% of workers in Bangladesh’s textile industry are women. Although this sector is a central pillar of the country’s economy, it provides little formal employment and lacks labour regulation as well as occupational health and safety policies. The many female employees receive low wages, work under dangerous and unhealthy conditions and are not covered by social protection schemes. The death of more than 1000 mainly female workers as a result of the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in April 2013 was a tragic illustration of the brutal conditions, and lack of safety nets, which shape the lives of too many Bangladeshi women. It resulted in increased international awareness and ongoing efforts to support the Government of Bangladesh in introducing a social protection system, with a particular focus on preventing and protecting against work accidents in the textile sector.


  • Pregnant women work late into their pregnancy

Due to a lack of income security and fear of dismissal, many women work late into their pregnancies and return to work prematurely. They lack access to quality ante- and post-natal health care. This endangers not only the health of the expectant mothers, but also that of their children.

  • Too many women lack access to adequate health care

In low-income countries, more than 90% of the population – a large proportion of them women – do not have legal health coverage to provide access to the most essential health care. As a result, they have to spend their limited incomes on out-of-pocket payments. In some cases, women go untreated as power differences in household decision-making make it impossible for them to access the funds needed to pay for medical treatment. Moreover, the specific health needs of women (such as quality maternal health care and specific facilities for women, including female medical staff) are often underresourced or not available.

India: Making sure that poor women and their families can access health care


This young woman from Bengal knows that, with her RSBY smart card, she and her child can access hospital services whenever they need them. © GIZ India

Many poor Indians suffer from painful, untreated conditions because they lack the money to pay for health care. This is particularly true for women who, on the whole, enjoy a lower social status than men in Indian society and whose health needs tend not to be prioritised when decisions are made about household expenditures. Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY), a German-supported social health insurance scheme designed to protect India’s poor from the consequences of catastrophic health expenses, is slowly changing this situation. With each passing year women represent an ever-greater proportion of its beneficiaries, currently estimated at 120 million people countrywide. Once enrolled, women have been shown to utilise benefits under RSBY in greater numbers than men. In some states, it is now possible for women to enrol directly in the scheme as ‘heads of household’ in their own right, rather than being covered as spouses or other dependents, giving them more control over decision-making when it comes to seeking healthcare.


Tanzania: Promoting social health protection for women in the informal sector


Community health funds make sure that this Tanzanian mother and her baby have access to health care, regardless of their current income. © GIZ / Dirk Ostermeier

Maternal mortality is slowly decreasing in Tanzania but remains high. Out of the 1.6 million births each year in Tanzania, less than half are attended by skilled personnel. Women’s specific health needs related to pregnancy and childbirth can thus put them at higher risk if not addressed through the health care delivery system.

Germany aims to improve the health of all Tanzanians by strengthening the health systems in line with a human rights-based approach. While targeting the entire population with a focus on the poor and vulnerable, women benefit specifically from the programme’s efforts to support social health protection to the informal sector through community health funds.


  • Older women lose out

Women tend to have a longer life expectancy than men. They are thus more likely to need income security for a longer time than men and may face higher health-related costs and costs for long-term care. At the same time, many women frequently do not receive any pensions as they were not formally employed or receive low pensions based on often lower wages during their working years. Some pension schemes also include an inherent gender-bias, such as lower pension ages for women or the use of sex-specific mortality tables for the calculation of benefit levels, which entail lower pensions for women than men, despite the same contribution record and retirement age.

Viet Nam: Setting up safety nets for women at their old age

Viet Nam

This Vietnamese women is 84 and still going strong. Like many of her age, she does not receive a pension and still needs to work to make ends meet. © GIZ/Thi Hong Ha Nguyen

Due to women’s higher life expectancy, Viet Nam’s older population is largely female. As these women grow older, they face greater expenditures for their healthcare and for age-related disabilities. Like in many other countries around the world, traditional cohabitation arrangements between the generations are changing so that many older persons now live alone or, in some cases, together with their grandchildren. Very few of these older women receive pension payments since most of them worked in the informal sector and never had the chance to contribute to any reliable pension scheme. As a result, many older women must continue to work to generate at least a basic income regardless of their old age and dwindling physical and mental capacities.

German development cooperation has contributed to efforts to increase the coverage of the compulsory and the voluntary pension scheme so that pensions are not necessarily linked to formal employment. It has also supported other instruments such as social pensions and self-help clubs to ensure access and coverage of all target groups, including women.

Due to the risks described above, women are much more likely than men to fall into poverty in the course of their lives.  Poverty rates are especially high among women in rural areas, single mothers, widows and older women. The substantial unpaid work that women around the world perform in the household and in caring for children and dependents tends not to translate into benefits they could draw upon from social protection schemes. 

Social protection: a powerful tool to unlock women’s potential

Access to a comprehensive set of social protection measures for women can break intergenerational cycles of poverty and have a transformative effect on society as a whole. Where social protection measures, such as cash transfers, employment injury protection, social health protection, as well as pension schemes, are targeted at women, they reduce maternal and infant mortality rates and ensure women’s income stability. They also lead to improvements especially in girls’ nutritional, health and educational status and to reductions in child labour.

Schemes linked to childcare services result in an increase in mothers’ participation in the labour market.

Social cash transfers help to strengthen women’s positions in their households and in the wider community. Where these cash transfers are reliable and regular they also increase women’s access to credit schemes.

In some countries, cash transfers can reduce the need for women and girls in female- and child-headed households to resort to transactional sex to ensure their survival. Last not least, social transfers may even have the potential to reduce female foeticide and child marriage. 

Applying a gender lens in the design of social protection schemes

There have been increasing calls for countries to establish national social protection floors. By ensuring effective access to at least essential health care and a basic level of income security, as the foundation for more comprehensive national social security systems, social protection floors help fill gendered coverage gaps.

In order to be effective in promoting gender equality and to avoid unintended consequences, a gender lens should be applied in the design, implementation and monitoring of social protection schemes. Promoting meaningful participation of women in the design and evaluation of social protection schemes can help ensure that their needs are effectively met.

Investments in access to social protection for women must be complemented by broader measures to promote gender equality. For example, promoting decent jobs for women and a more equal sharing of care responsibilities can help reduce some of the inequalities in labour markets and access to adequate social protection. 

Women’s social protection as a strategy for growth and development

Social protection can play a crucial role in protecting women from risks throughout the life cycle while at the same time contributing to gender equality and women’s empowerment. Social protection systems can increase women’s bargaining power and have the potential to transform long-standing discriminatory attitudes and gender roles. Benefits targeted at women can represent a recognition of their unpaid work.

Despite a significant expansion of social protection schemes in recent years, large numbers of girls and women around the world continue to be left without adequate social protection. Greater efforts – and political will – are needed to meet the specific social protection needs of girls and women.

Especially in times of fiscal consolidation, it is crucial to see the expansion of social protection as an investment rather than a cost. Social transfers in the hands of women benefit the entire household. By promoting human capital development, social protection accessible to women is an effective strategy to foster pro-poor growth and long-term economic and social development.

By Anke Green
Contributions by Sandra Nguyen, Johanna Knoess


Please do not hesitate to share any comments or further good practice examples from your programmes on gender and social protection with us!

Johanna Knoess at Johanna.Knoess@giz.de
Sector Initiative Systems of Social Protection
Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH
on behalf of Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Division 300, Sectoral and thematic policies; poverty reduction and social protection.

Link to the article 


Birdsall, K. (2015). Health insurance for India’s poor. Meeting the challenge with information technology. A publication in the German Health Practice Collection. Eschborn, GIZ.

Cerceau, S. (2012), Gender equality in access to health care: The role of social health protection, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, Eschborn. Available online at: http://www.giz.de/fachexpertise/downloads/giz2012-en-gender-equality-in-access-to-health-care.pdf

Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH (2013),Old Age Protection in Viet Nam, Factsheet, Hanoi.

International Labour Office (2014), World Social Protection Report 2014/15: Building economic recovery, inclusive development and social justice, Geneva.

Kerstan, B. and D. Susilastuti (2012), Social Protection and Gender in Indonesia, unpublished working paper, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, Jakarta.

Luttrell, C. and Moser, C. (2004), Gender and Social Protection, Overseas Development Institute, London.

Tessier, L.; Stern Plaza, M.; Behrendt, C.; Bonnet, F. and St-Pierre Guibault, E. (2013), Social protection floors and gender equality: a brief overview, ESS Working Paper no. 37, International Labour Office, Social Protection Department, Geneva.

Thakur, S.G.; Arnold, C. and Johnson T. (2009), “Gender and Social Protection”, in Promoting Pro-Poor Growth: Social Protection, OECD, Paris, pp. 167-182.

Posted in Gender Week Blog, Year 2015