The rapid manner in which social protection systems have gained prominence and political support in development and poverty reduction discourse over the past few years is practically without precedent, leading some to consider it “a quiet revolution.” Latin American countries have been at the forefront of this “revolution,” with political support for government-funded social protection mechanisms going hand in hand with a growing discourse in favor of a human rights approach in development agendas.

This approach is in line with the constitutions of most Latin American countries (including Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, and Brazil), which enshrine a long list of human rights and explicitly recognize that these norms impose limits on state power. This constitutional protection of rights includes not only civil and political rights, but a wide range of economic, social, and cultural rights (see e.g. the constitutions of Colombia, Brazil, and Costa Rica), the prohibition of discrimination (on the grounds of gender, age, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, health status, and others), and the obligation to take affirmative action to protect groups that have suffered from structural discrimination (see e.g. constitution of Ecuador).

The normative protection of rights has also been reflected in a variety of policy instruments. Thus it is no longer uncommon to find that national development plans use clear rights language or even position the observance of human rights as one of the central axes, recognizing the realization of rights as an integral part of effective work towards developmental goals.

Social protection mechanisms play a critical role in achieving these rights-based objectives, particularly in highly unequal societies, of which Latin America has many. Indeed, Latin America remains the most unequal region in the world, not only in relation to monetary income but also along the dimensions of gender, ethnicity, class, and region. According to available statistics compiled by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in the Social Panorama of Latin America 2012, the richest 10 percent of the Latin American population on average receives 32 percent of total income, while the poorest 40 percent receive only 15 percent. Thus, the political support given to social protection seems to be grounded in increasing commitment to the realization of rights and pursuit of equality. As ECLAC has noted in La Hora de la Igualdad (2010), “the great task of the 21st century” is to build more egalitarian societies with full respect for human rights, and ensuring that the entire population is protected through social protection mechanisms is one of the tools to achieve these objectives.

Carmona Graph

With this explosion of attention and policy energy placed on social protection, and in particular on CCTs, one of my major concerns as United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has been to conduct a critical analysis of the human rights implications and impacts of these. Undoubtedly, social protection can be an important tool for poverty reduction and has the potential to contribute to the realization of economic, social, and cultural rights, such as the right to an adequate standard of living—which includes the right to adequate food, clothing, and housing—as well as the rights to education and health, all of which are outlined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Social protection is also a right in and of itself, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and in several binding instruments, most prominently in the ICESCR as the “right to social security.”

While the impact of social protection programs varies according to their objectives, design, and level of institutionalization, as well as the level of development of the countries where they are implemented, numerous studies, including those conducted by the International Labour Organization (ILO), demonstrate that specific cash transfer programs have ensured that those living in poverty enjoy at least minimum essential levels of some economic, social, and cultural rights. These beneficial impacts add further weight to the claim that there is a strong and symbiotic relationship between human rights and social protection.

However, the success or failure of social protection systems in realizing human rights rests heavily on whether such systems are established and operated according to the standards that human rights require and the obligations they impose. As will be seen below, if social protection programs are not implemented with due respect to human rights standards they may exacerbate inequality, have discriminatory effects, or fail to reach large numbers of the eligible poor who desperately need benefits and support. In particular, their impact on gender equality and women’s rights—a critical element of the international human rights framework—have to be analyzed carefully.

It is outside the scope of this short article to elucidate the full details of the human rights approach to social protection (which I outlined in the book The Human Rights Approach to Social Protection, co-authored by Carly Nyst and published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland in 2012), and therefore this article will focus more narrowly on the impact of CCTs on gender equality and the human rights of women. It is important to note from the outset that social protection encompasses much more than cash transfer programs, and I am choosing to focus narrowly on the latter only to make the analysis more concrete. In fact, policy-makers need to focus more attention on scaling up from cash transfer programs, and dedicate more effort to implementing comprehensive public policies and innovative social protection systems, of which direct income transfers are only one element.

The Impact of Conditional Cash Transfers on Women

While CCT programs implemented in Latin America differ greatly in regard to their size, coverage, administration, implementation, and level of benefits, most of them do share a common logic and characteristic: women are the main recipients. According to the Overseas Development Institute, in Brazil’s Bolsa Familia, for example, 94 percent of the recipients are women. However, this targeting of women is not based on a fundamental recognition of their rights. Rather, in most cases the objective is to benefit children and adolescents; women are merely conduits, or “operational beneficiaries,” through whom the funds are channeled in exchange for compliance with certain requirements.

The “conditional” element of these programs are activities that women (mothers) must undertake in return for the benefit, such as taking children for vaccinations and health check-ups, and/or ensuring children’s attendance at school. In most cases, non-compliance with these requirements is penalized: sanctions range from warnings and temporary loss of benefits to permanent exclusion from the program.

Increasing children’s school attendance and vaccination rates are certainly worthwhile outcomes to pursue, and receiving cash does improve the material situation of women and may indeed empower them in some senses. However, to improve women’s human rights enjoyment and address gender inequality, it is not sufficient simply to make them the beneficiaries of cash transfers in this way.

Indeed, the CCT paradigm may not only have unintended impacts on gender relations; it also raises a number of human rights concerns.

Most obviously, the imposition of conditionalities creates additional burdens for women. For example, the 2012 report of ECLAC’s Gender Equality Observatory shows that in Ecuador, poor women recipients of CCT engaged in 38 hours of unpaid care work per week, compared to an average of 33 hours for poor women who are not recipients of the program. These five hours per week can make a significant difference to these women’s income, opportunities, and well-being in the long term. However, most of the CCTs in Latin America do not explicitly consider the burden that they place on women in order to comply with the conditionalities.

Relatedly, CCTs can also exacerbate inequalities in time use between women and men. The additional demands on women’s time created by these requirements sometimes hinder their access to formal labor markets, limit their possibilities to participate in education and training, restrict their ability to seek health care, or further deprive them of scarce leisure time.

Moreover, making women explicitly responsible for childcare-related conditionalities may have the pernicious impact of reinforcing traditional gender roles within the family. The flagship CCTs in Latin America have in fact been widely criticized, including by ECLAC, for operating with a maternalist vision, which assumes that women should take charge of domestic life, care, and raising children. This does not help to overcome gender stereotypes or promote women’s access to paid work. On the contrary, it encourages them to remain homebound.

Given that the unequal distribution of unpaid care work, based on gender stereotypes, often represents a major obstacle to the enjoyment of a wide range of rights for women (as I discussed in detail in my 2013 report to the UN General Assembly), from access to paid work to the rights to education and health, this is a significant design flaw of the program.

Women living in poverty in particular spend a disproportionate amount of time on unpaid care work due to limited access to technology and public services; this time burden entrenches their poverty and inequality further. It is therefore crucial for both equality and poverty reduction that social protection programs recognize the frequent role of women as care providers, without reinforcing patterns of discrimination and negative stereotypes. Unfortunately, very few countries in the region have a clear agenda in their social protection policy with a view to supporting and redistributing care and providing care services.

In addition, from a rights perspective it is extremely problematic to make the enjoyment of a right dependent on a quid pro quo relationship, not to mention the use of punitive measures for beneficiaries who fail to comply. Respect for human dignity and the autonomy and freedom of all people to make decisions about their own wellbeing and that of their families is at the very heart of the concept of rights. Human rights—including economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR)—are inherently possessed by all people, and cannot be made conditional on certain behaviors. In fact, under human rights law, states have the legal duty to guarantee basic social services to ensure at least minimum essential levels of ESCR such as education and health, and these do not depend on the fulfillment of responsibilities by the rights-holder.

The imposition of conditions assumes that people living in poverty cannot make rational choices that will improve their lives or that of their children, and therefore they must prove (through compliance with state-mandated actions) that they are “deserving” of benefits. Conditionalities may also come into conflict with the principles of equality and non- discrimination, including the concept of equal treatment, since it imposes a form of behavior control on the poorest sectors of the population, when other social groups that receive economic benefits from public policies—state-funded health care, universal child benefits, or tax credits—are not subjected to behavior control.

As well as the human rights concerns discussed above, there is a lack of compelling evidence regarding the supposedly beneficial effects of conditionalities. In fact, studies increasingly show that the desired outcomes—the same improvements in health and education—could be achieved without these linked requirements.

However, it is necessary to recognize that in some cases conditionalities may be deemed a political necessity—a way to “sell” the policy to skeptical politicians or members of the electorate who hold stereotypical views of the “undeserving” versus the “deserving poor.” If, as has been argued by the World Bank, taxpayers are more likely to support transfers to the poor if they are linked to efforts to overcome poverty “in the long term,” particularly actions to improve the welfare of children, international human rights law still imposes some obligations.

At the very least, in order to prevent human rights violations, policymakers should ensure that failure to comply with imposed conditions is not met with punitive measures. Expulsion from the program for non-compliance, as happens in Mexico’s Oportunidades if a child does not attend school, is an extreme punitive measure that undermines the right to social security and may cause a serious deterioration in the standard of living. In contrast, Brazil’s Bolsa Familia responds to non-compliance more positively by directing more resources to the family and giving them access to social workers, and families are guaranteed a minimum benefit whether or not they meet the conditions.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Despite the progress made in tackling poverty in Latin America over the last two decades, 2013 findings by ECLAC show that the pace of poverty reduction has slowed sharply, with extreme poverty rates in particular remaining stubbornly high. Moreover, in the last decade the proportion of women living in poverty in the region has in fact increased. Over 30 percent of women have no independent income, while the number of hours women work per day (including care work) has risen. Meanwhile, gender-based violence, another major barrier to women’s equality, has not significantly decreased, with between 17 and 53 percent of women in the region being victims of violence.

Achieving full equality of rights between men and women is a fundamental element of the rights approach enshrined in human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ICESCR, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The principles of non-discrimination and equality impose a number of quite specific obligations on states in relation to the design of public policies in general and social protection systems in particular. Among other actions, states must take affirmative action to reduce structural disadvantages and to diminish or eliminate conditions that give rise to discrimination or tend to perpetuate it. For example, the CEDAW Convention, which is legally binding for the vast majority of states, expressly refers to the sharing of responsibility among men and women and wider society in regard to the upbringing of children and requires states to take positive action to combat patriarchal attitudes and stereotypes regarding the roles and responsibilities of women and men within the family and society at large. Therefore to be in compliance with human rights obligations, public policies including social protection systems should actively promote gender equality, empower women, and challenge rather than perpetuate gender stereotypes.

All these obligations are certainly not unknown to policy-makers in Latin America, or at least they should not be, given the strong rhetoric of human rights in public policy instruments in the region. However, there is still a huge gap in terms of translating this rhetoric into reality. Policymakers are still in the early stages of their learning curve in terms of putting the rights discourse into practice.

To move forward, it is critical for policymakers, research institutes, academia, and civil society to regularly and seriously assess the human rights implications and risks of proposed and existing policies. A crucial task to ensure that policies are in line with human rights obligations is ensuring that they are gender-sensitive rather than gender-blind. All public policies should aim to tackle gendered asymmetries of power and structural inequalities between men and women, including with regard to access to productive resources, education, health, and work.

As argued here, CCTs are not gender neutral, and accordingly should be designed and implemented taking into account the multiple forms of discrimination that women experience, and address women’s particular needs throughout their life cycle. Furthermore, as women’s disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care is a fundamental pillar of structural inequality, cash transfer programs must respect and acknowledge the role of women as care providers, without reinforcing patterns of discrimination and negative stereotyping.

In order to do so, policymakers must abandon the maternalist vision of social policy, which is so firmly embedded in CCTs. Women have an intrinsic right to social protection by virtue of being human, not simply through their function as mothers. The paradigm of women as principally mothers and carers can restrict their freedoms, rights, and opportunities, and obstruct the achievement of true gender equality more broadly. Instead, cash transfers and other social protection policies could contribute positively towards transforming gender relations, for instance by encouraging and enabling the better sharing of care between women and men, and between households and the state.

To this end, they should incorporate child care components (as seen for example in the Chile Solidario program, which ensures that child care is provided for female heads of households undertaking training and includes free preschool programs for the target population) and built-in mechanisms to promote the fairer sharing of domestic work between men and women.

From a human rights perspective, states must review and revise conditionalities and their forms of implementation, ideally removing the conditionalities all together. If conditionalities remain in place, their rationale and effects should be transformed so that noncompliance can be used as a facilitative tool to assist in identifying the most vulnerable families, providing supportive social work, and addressing failures in public services rather than seeking to control and sanction the lives and choices of poor women. Tackling women’s poverty and inequality through CCTs will also necessitate a comprehensive approach to improving the enjoyment of a variety of economic, social, and cultural rights, in particular through improving the quality, adequacy, and accessibility of public services including access to sexual and reproductive care.

Lastly, as participation is a fundamental element of the human rights approach, cash transfer programs should explicitly incorporate mechanisms that provide for the effective and meaningful participation of women.

Participation and accountability mechanisms must take into account gendered power relations, providing members of both sexes the opportunity to express their views equally, including, if necessary, through separate consultations (e.g. female-only spaces) and support activities. Such measures are indispensable tools to ensure these programs can truly empower women, increase their autonomy, and meet their needs.

In sum, although there have been significant advances in terms of social protection in Latin America, there are still challenges ahead of enormous magnitude. Social protection programs have not yet made a truly significant impact in reducing inequalities—including along the lines of gender—and ensuring that the poorest and most vulnerable groups have access to the minimum essential enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights. Each country is faced with the need to strengthen its social policies, under pressure from populations that are increasingly hungry to participate in the formulation and implementation of policies and demanding more transparency, access to information, and accountability. In order to rise to the challenge, human rights law and principles must be an important guiding star for politicians and policymakers. Those designing, implementing, and administering social programs must be trained and sensitized on human rights and gender issues, so that these programs can truly contribute towards women’s more meaningful enjoyment of rights.