Are we missing a game changer? Gender-based violence and social protection

I want to talk about an area that is little known, often misunderstood, yet promising – what we know about the links between gender-based violence and social protection.

We know that the period of history we are living through has surfaced severe challenges for girls and women. Alongside the health pandemic and lockdown measures globally, there is a dire socioeconomic crisis that threatens to erode years of progress. Against this backdrop, the so-called shadow pandemic was with us all along. I am talking about the pandemic of gender-based violence (GBV), particularly against girls and women – a pervasive and yet often invisible human rights abuse. UNICEF plays a key role globally, in ensuring that all survivors of violence get the support they need – but also in pushing forward innovation and ambition on reducing and preventing GBV.

So why would social protection be a game changer?

Although there is increasing evidence that social protection can be a powerful tool in reducing intimate partner violence, this is an area that remains under-explored. UNICEF has played a key role in this area, supporting and producing cutting edge research, including a rigorous mixed method review of what we know about cash transfer programming and intimate partner violence in low- and middle-income countries. This indicated that in over 70 per cent of the 22 quantitative and qualitative studies reviewed, cash transfers to poor households reduced intimate partner violenceeven though none of these programmes were designed to reduce violence.

Overall the evidence is promising, and that is something to pay attention to – not least because of the scale of social protection spending and systems, the magnitude of GBV, and the extensive nature of its consequences.

I always knew that social protection was a critical component of our toolkit for improving the lives of children, no question – but COVID-19 cast it in a different light. The pandemic has shifted social protection into the spotlight, with over 1100 new social protection measures introduced by more than 200 countries. It represents a significant scale of investment – for example, for 119 countries where data is available, social protection spending during COVID19 totals US$789.8 billion. At UNICEF, we are supporting the development of strong social protection systems in 115 countries, working with national governments to design, adapt, implement, monitor, evaluate and develop their social protection work. We are seeing the linkages between social protection and gender-based violence in this work already. For example, in Ghana we are seeing reductions in intimate partner violence, and in Tanzania, reductions in sexual violence against adolescent girls, for those participating in the programmes that combine cash transfers with other services.

Reimagine: social protection as an accelerator for gender equality and to address GBV

This multi-dimensional crisis has forced us to take a step back and ask, how can we reimagine a world where we respond better to the enormous challenges that face us today? From rapid onset health and climate emergencies, to gender inequality and other persistent forms of discrimination, marginalization and exclusion – what are the key accelerators that can lead to substantial progress, when COVID threatens the gains we have made? Where are the areas of untapped potential, to leverage results at scale?

For me, the linkages between social protection and gender equality are a prime example. We have evidence indicating that social protection can increase girls’ enrollment and attendance at school; increase women’s empowerment and control over key decisions such as household expenditure and contraceptive use; support improvements in adolescent girls’ mental health; and address some of the drivers of harmful practices such as child marriage. Social protection cannot do everything alone: there is no silver bullet for the complex drivers and root causes of GBV. We cannot forget that at its root, GBV is driven by gender inequality and unequal power relations. But what we can do is recognize the promising potential in the evidence to date and invest in operational learning and innovation to see what better, more intentional and multi-sectoral approaches can do to help advance gender equality and reduce GBV.

It would be a significant missed opportunity for children … if we do not invest and innovate based on what we know.

For example, if cash transfers can increase economic security, this can lead to a reduction in poverty-related stress and increased emotional well-being, addressing some of the drivers of GBV. But if cash were to be combined with some of the promising components identified in other sectors – such as with gender-transformative curricula and skills-building, this could strengthen economic outcomes and create synergies in reducing GBV. This is often referred to as ‘cash plus’ programming.

Given the preventative potential of cash transfers on GBV, I believe it would be a significant missed opportunity for children, especially girls, as well as women, if we do not invest and innovate based on what we know.

A call to action

More than anything, this  is a call to action for all social protection actors, from national governments to international financial institutions, from the private sector and investors to civil society, and to UN agencies and funds like ourselves. We see five key areas for action based on what we know is happening on the ground. They are:

  1. Risk mitigation as a bare minimum and central plank of this work. There are important concerns about the risks of increased violence – for example, through backlash from male partners when resources are made available to women, as a result of shifting power dynamics. We need to support and finance risk mitigation of GBV within social protection programming and adapt best practices to this specific sector. UNICEF leads the inter-agency implementation of the GBV Guidelines in humanitarian settings and we are building on existing guidance, including a new tool adapted specifically for cash transfer programming. We hope our forthcoming work will support further learning and good practice in this area, in humanitarian and development spheres.
  2. Invest in research. What we know is promising, but there are many gaps. We need to know more about how cash transfers impact GBV across different age groups – and about the potential of other forms of social protection. We need more evidence on impacts in different regions and contexts, including humanitarian emergencies. As UNICEF, we would particularly emphasize the need for understanding what design choices or combinations of programme elements lead to the most significant impacts, recognizing that a multi-sectoral approach is needed. We are leading a research programme focused on gender and social protection, looking at some of these gaps in knowledge.
  3. Leverage the COVID-19 policy spotlight and seek out operational connections to better respond to the needs of girls and women. We are working across sectors to provide enhanced services to girls and women affected by GBV, including within the social protection COVID19 response. For example, UNICEF Sierra Leone is working with the government to extend training on GBV and psychosocial support to frontline social protection workers and create more effective referrals to specialized GBV response services. This makes me extremely proud and is UNICEF at its best – cutting across silos and bringing our multi-sectoral expertise to bear.
  4. Take forward operational learning and share as we go. We are keen to explore ‘cash plus’ approaches as part of national government systems – but these need to have a gender-transformative approach and be paired with a strong focus on learning and risk mitigation. We need to keep monitoring and learning, for example from cash plus pilots in Kenya, Mozambique and elsewhere, which are incorporating violence components as part of a parenting intervention and integrated case management services. Following the COVID19 outbreak, UNICEF is supporting a number of countries in adapting and designing cash plus components, drawing on the wealth of experience already available.
  5. Break out of sectoral silos between our different communities, whether it is social protection, GBV, child protection, humanitarian and other communities working in this area. Whether you are situated in a government ministry, a humanitarian NGO, a UN agency or a research institution, we all face these silos. But the drivers of GBV don’t fit neatly into any of these parameters, and neither will the solutions. In September 2020, we co-organized an expert panel event to explore exactly these issues, partnering with the World Bank, FCDO and UN Women to share knowledge and learning – and we plan to work with others to convene more spaces where we cross the bridges in research, policy and practice.


Above all, we need political and personal will, and a willingness to engage and act at every level.

With that I leave you with three questions, which I hope everyone with power and influence in this space will be asking – from colleagues designing programmes in the field, to Ministers of Finance considering how to make the soundest investments for children and women. They are:

  • How can we apply what we know so far to large-scale programmes, to increase the potential that social protection supports reductions in GBV?
  • How can we work with, learn from and empower local organizations and girls and women themselves in our social protection work?
  • How can we support further innovation and learning in this area?


I hope as UNICEF we can lead by example, and look forward to seeing this in action – not just during these 16 days of activism to end violence against women and girls, but day in and day out, as we work to build the future free of poverty and violence.



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