Analysis: Doubts over role of cash transfers in women's empowerment

Photo: Jason Gutierrez/IRIN
Gender relations shift in an emergency
BANGKOK, 6 May 2011 (IRIN) - Doubts are emerging over whether cash transfers, designed to strengthen local markets, also empower women and change gender roles in emergencies.

"Gender relations are quite complex and you cannot assume US$50 is going to change that," Sarah Bailey, research officer at the Humanitarian Policy Group, told IRIN. "You cannot assume targeting women necessarily leads to their empowerment or promotes gender equality."

According to a joint report by Oxfam Great Britain and Concern Worldwide on cash transfers and gender dynamics released on 6 May, most cash transfer programmes target women in the belief that communities will benefit and that men are irresponsible with money.

Cash-in-hand instead of goods-in-kind aid in an emergency became popular after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

While at first sceptical, donors and organizations now widely accept cash is a viable mechanism for relief if markets are intact and there is capacity to distribute money.

But while cash transfer policies tend to be gender-focused, such ideals remain largely unimplemented or lack a clear way to measure results, said Nupur Kukrety, social protection and food security adviser at Oxfam GB and also a member of the steering committee of the Cash Learning Partnership.

"Having policy is one thing; getting it implemented is another," she said.

Gabrielle Smith, social protection and safety nets adviser for Concern Worldwide, said remaining realistic about one's goals for cash transfers in an emergency environment was key.

Bailey concurred: "The objective is to provide critical assistance when people need it most, saving lives and livelihoods in the aftermath of disaster."

Gender analysis

Experts agree cash transfers in emergencies should at least aim to do no harm to women, making context-specific gender analysis just as essential to cash transfers as ensuring markets are working and prices are reasonable.

"Giving women cash in emergencies is an important step forward, but I would see empowerment as a process that goes far beyond this to tackle the multiple deprivations that women experience. This takes time so emergencies may not provide the conditions for empowering women in this broader sense," said Maxine Molyneux, gender expert and director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of London.

Molyneux cited research that shows women are often the most vulnerable when disaster strikes.

Assessments should be made both before and after a disaster, because often gender relations shift in an emergency, said Puspasari Indra, East Asia regional technical coordinator of emergency food security and livelihood for Oxfam GB in Indonesia.

"Gender analysis should be done based on a triangulation," Indra said. "You can do this quickly after the disaster by talking to local organizations and then to local men and women. It does not have to be perfect; it can improve."

Indra explained that gender analysis informed Oxfam's relief efforts after the earthquake in Western Sumatra in 2009, revealing an important nuance: women had money in their name, but they did not decide how to spend it.

Demonizing men

The report found many NGO programmes in Zimbabwe and Kenya targeted women, but did not actively involve men - a policy that can alienate or disempower men or negate feelings of responsibility.

Amina Abdulla, programme manager at Concern in Kenya, said men shied away from requesting assistance when food prices spiked in 2009 because their cash transfers targeted women, assuming men would not spend it wisely. However, the 10 percent of men who did receive cash in hand spent the money quite responsibly, contradicting stereotypes, she said.

Though Molyneux believes women should be the recipients of cash transfers, she said policies that failed to address gender inequalities could deepen gender divisions.

"Men are usually completely marginalized from the activities of the cash transfer programmes, which sends the message that they have no responsibility for care in the family," Molyneux said. "I would recommend men are integrated into these programmes and encouraged to think of their role in the family in more positive ways."

Kukrety added: "Empowerment is not just about handing over a resource to a man or a woman, it is much more than that. You can marry humanitarian response with long-term development and then you can change gender roles."


Theme (s): Aid Policy, Gender Issues,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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