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Anti-poverty programs can also champion gender equality

January 20, 2020

New research is identifying how anti-poverty programs can also address gender barriers to elicit transformative and lasting effects on the lives of the poor.

Anti-poverty graduation programs, currently underway in more than 40 countries, build financial capacity and enhance assets to help households become self-sufficient and weather adversity. The goal is to “graduate” participants out of extreme poverty by providing support in five areas:

  • basic consumption

  • the ability to save

  • financial knowledge

  • livelihood skills

  • assets (for example, livestock or a sewing machine).

Combining these five components is proving to be a cost-effective way for governments to reach the most marginalized people who have yet to benefit from poverty reduction efforts.

From women’s participation to gender equality

Women make up approximately 80% of graduation program participants. While these programs certainly contribute to their economic empowerment, they may also have the potential to support women’s equality more broadly by transforming restrictions that prevent women from accessing and controlling resources. By addressing restrictive social norms, unequal power relations between men and women, and the institutional constraints that inhibit women’s overall empowerment, graduation programs can promote truly sustainable transformations for women, men, and communities at large.

A focus on gender equality can also counter the unintended negative effects of graduation programs, such as the double burden of home and income-earning work or, in more extreme cases, intimate partner violence that undermines women’s control over resources.


Lessons learned on gender and graduation programs

IDRC’s research partner Fundación Capital recently published a paper reviewing evidence on the effects of graduation programs on women’s empowerment and agency. Sonia Laszlo, author of the paper and an associate professor in economics at McGill University, identified the following lessons by drawing on policies and practices from graduation programs around the world. 

Map out pre-existing conditions: Local infrastructure, people’s self-esteem, relationships in the home, socio-economic status, and other pre-existing conditions affect a program’s outcome. These factors must be understood and reflected in the program’s design and planning.

Target the vulnerable: Gender is a significant source of inequality, but so are other factors. For example, a disability could prevent women from participating in a program. Special efforts should be made to include women from marginalized populations.

Coach early on: To empower women, coaching must explicitly challenge traditional gender roles and social norms. The coaching must occur early in the program and it should include men (especially husbands). More research is needed to find cost-effective ways to offer coaching on a large scale.

Introduce women’s groups: Self-help and savings-and-loans groups play an important role in empowering women — including in non-economic dimensions such as interpersonal relations and political participation.

Engage with men: Involving men (especially husbands) in the coaching and training stages of the programs is crucial to address unequal gender dynamics.

Address care work: Reducing and redistributing care work and domestic chores in households is fundamental.

Sensitize local staff: Gender barriers intersect with other forms of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, sexual identity, religion, and other aspects of identity. Trained local staff should recognize  this intersectionality throughout program implementation.

Reaching hundreds of thousands through government programs

The goal is to identify, test, and evaluate relevant tools and practices to advance a gender transformative approach in graduation programs. The approach will be piloted in Paraguay and Peru, but the research is expected to have relevance worldwide. IDRC supports this research through a grant to Fundación Capital and the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos.

The work builds on previous support for research to ensure that the graduation model, originally designed and implemented by non-governmental organizations, can be integrated into large governmental social protection programs for hundreds of thousands of people. With support from IDRC and the Ford Foundation, Fundación Capital introduced important innovations to the graduation programs, such as using digital technologies for training and coaching. Evidence generated through a multi-country learning and evaluation effort shows that the adaptations have positive effects on the wellbeing of extremely poor households, including increasing self-confidence, savings, physical assets, and time dedicated to their own productive activities.

Graduation program experts from around the world discussed efforts to include a gender lens in their work at a September 2019 meeting in Ottawa convened by IDRC, Fundación Capital, and the World Bank Partnership for Economic Inclusion. The meeting led to the creation of a working group to continue promoting women’s empowerment and agency through anti-poverty programs.

Read the Fundación Capital policy brief

Watch an interview with Tatiana Rincón, vice-president of Fundación Capital 

Read the GrOW research series policy brief, produced by McGill University’s Institute for the Study of International Development