Transferring empowerment

What India can learn from Brazil’s cash transfer program experience regarding female empowerment

Since 2013, India is gradually implementing the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT), a scheme which soon will be the largest cash transfer program in the world. It basically consists in transforming former government subsidies, especially the ones related to food and fuel, into direct cash transfers to the neediest people, aiming to make this expenditure more efficient to alleviate poverty. Meanwhile, the DBT can also contribute to empower Indian women, and the Brazilian experience can provide some insights about how this can be achieved.

Brazil’s cash transfer program, called Programa Bolsa Família (PBF), was implemented in 2003 gathering previous transfer programs related to education, health and fuel – similarly to India’s case. Since then, PBF has benefited about 50 million people, being one of the main drivers of the social improvements observed in Brazil during the last years, like poverty and inequality reduction and the exclusion of the country from the UN hunger map.

A cash transfer program consists in a mechanism through which individuals regularly receive a certain amount of cash from the government if they attend minimum requirements. These requirements usually relate to social and economic conditions, such as living below the poverty line or having some disability. A cash transfer program can impose conditions to its beneficiaries, who, as counterparts, have to keep being part of the program, for example by enrolling their children in schools and going to regular health check-ups. Cash transfer programs have shown excellent outcomes regarding poverty reduction and have been widely implemented in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia.

Although the idea behind a cash transfer program sounds simple, its implementation is quite complex. The first step consists in the identification of the potential beneficiaries of the program, who are generally very poor people. Many of them do not have IDs, not being officially identified by the government and the welfare system. Afterwards, it is necessary to link them to bank accounts to allow them to have access to the transfers they will receive from the government. These bank accounts have to be equally subsidized and easily accessed, considering the potential beneficiaries of a cash transfer program generally live in rural areas, have lower educational level and limited access to technology. In spite of all this, a cash transfer program presents a relatively low maintenance cost and, when fully and correctly implemented, presents impressive outcomes.

Brazil’s PBF has shown that one of these impressive outcomes relates to gender. The health conditions of female beneficiaries have impressively increased, especially regarding fertility awareness and birth, to make prenatal exams is in fact one of the conditionalities of the program. Brazilian women now have more control over their children’s schooling, and PBF has also even increased the divorce ratios, as female beneficiaries of the program have become empowered enough to leave their abusive partners.

Much of these gender effects can be explained by the PBF implementation design: the program gives preference to women at the moment of the cash transfer. The consequence is that 93% of the families benefited by the PBF are headed by females. This program structure affects decisively the intra-household decisions mechanism, generating power and self-esteem in women, and making them less dependent on their male partners.

This preference for women is deliberate because PBF policymakers believe women are more reliable. When women receive the transfer, the outcomes of the program are usually better. Women have a different consumption profile, being generally more careful with their household and children than men. Therefore, the preference for women is also an important strategy to create inter-generational benefits, from parents to children, in the way the cash transfer program can generate long run effects.

Thus, PBF is contributing to improve the reality in a country where misogyny is still very present: 43% of Brazil’s women have already suffered some kind of violence in their own homes, 26% of Brazilians agree that women deserve to be assaulted when wearing revealing clothes, and 59% of them believe that there would be fewer rapes if women knew how to behave properly.

By its turn, unfortunately the Indian DBT seems to be following a different track. Although it is true women are the majority of the beneficiaries of the food subsidies in India, the majority of the subsidies to fuel are still given to men. Besides a social structure where misogyny is certainly very present too, DBT also has to deal with the fact that a small share of Indians have access to financial services and, among them, the majority are men. In India, only 35% of the poor households have access to bank accounts, and while the bank penetration is 43% among men, it is only 26% among women.

India may be missing an important chance to promote women’s empowerment. The design and implementation of a large and important program like DBT should pay attention to every single procedure which can have gender effects. Furthermore, the Brazilian PBF was implemented firstly in a municipal level, and only later it was consolidated into a national program. On the contrary, the DBT in India seems to be implemented in an up-down way, which can affect negatively the outcomes of the program.

The advantages that well designed cash transfer programs have on women’s empowerment have become less undeniable every day. For this reason, carefully planning every step of their implementation is crucial. India has the opportunity to narrow the inequality between men and women, it will be a shame if it does not take this chance.

Diego da Silva Rodrigues

Diego is an applied economist interested in policy evaluation and quantitative methods. His main interests are around family issues, such as marriage, parenting, gender, fertility and children, being member of the International Network of Child Support Scholars (INCSS) and the Parenting Culture Studies Postgraduate Network. Diego has also publications in migration and health economics, and is currently involved with human rights and democracy activism in South America. At present, he is completing his PhD at the University of Kent, UK, and is lecturer in Economics at IESGO, Brazil.
    One Comment
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    Serena Natile
    9 November 2016 at 1:06 pm
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    Hey Diego, nice piece. In my PhD, however, in which I elaborated a feminist theory to analyse the gender implications of mobile money in Kenya, I arrived to a different conclusion based on the regulation of money transfers and on the fact that the proliferation of opportunities through money transfers can create more responsibilities for women, for instance in terms of ‘unpaid’ social reproduction work, such as transforming the opportunities in improved livelihood for their families and communities. What I argue is that if these programmes are based on a politics of opportunity and not on a politics of redistribution they cannot change unequal gender relations (I’m always quite conscious about the use of ’empowerment’ considering the feminist critiques of this buzzword). I’m going to publish it as a book next year and I’ll send you a copy, so that you can tell me what you think. Also, you might like to read Ferguson’s book

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