Lessons from South Africa on why gender matters in social welfare policies

Mothers and their babies at a clinic in Johannesburg. South Africa leads the Global South with its expansive social protection programme. Reuters

This article is a foundation essay. These are longer than usual and take a wider look at a key issue affecting society.

The question of gender equality in social welfare policies is a topic that remains under-developed in social welfare theory and policy thinking in the Global South. This is true even though it is increasingly receiving attention in the North.

Gender equality features in various United Nations platforms of action, including the Millennium Development Goals. But these have been criticised for their narrow focus on health and education outcomes for women and girls while remaining silent on the unpaid care work of women in social and economic development.

The 2015 Sustainable Development Goals do give greater weight to gender equality. But how countries will execute the goals remains a key challenge. The paths of welfare, economic and gender-equality policies seldom cross. This may be because scholars and practitioners come from different disciplines, professions and theoretical perspectives.

This has resulted in the gendered nature of social welfare theories and policies remaining hidden, invisible and taken for granted. This is particularly true in development contexts. It is therefore timely to debate how we might think about a more gender-sensitive and equitable welfare agenda in the South.

The South African case is useful as it is one of the few countries that has explicitly adopted the developmental approach to social welfare. Two issues provide context of how successful, or not, this has been in practice. The first is gender and care in the country’s welfare regime. The second is gender issues in social protection.

The invisible world of caregivers

South Africa’s welfare policies were substantially reviewed at the end of apartheid. Nevertheless the overarching policy framework set by the White Paper on Welfare was criticised for not locating care – that is, the right to receive and give care, and to be supported by various actors including the state in meeting people’s care needs – within a social rights framework.

There has been a shift in social policy thinking by feminists away from an emphasis only on gender discrimination towards the more equal distribution of care responsibilities in society, including greater public support for care services delivered by women in the home. Care services are viewed as a public good, a social investment in current and future social well-being.

Care work refers to physical care such as house work, cleaning, and feeding and bathing a child or a sick or older person. It is also about providing emotional care and social support.

Women bear the greatest personal cost of care. A woman with care responsibilities is often not able to be employed. She may experience social isolation, expend emotional resources and may forfeit opportunities for education, engagement in livelihood activities and wider social participation. This situation is worsened by a lack of access to basic services such as water, sanitation, electricity and transport, and could increase the time and physical work of caring. These factors can increase the cost of caregiving in time, physical energy consumed and hidden financial costs that caregivers and their families and households have to bear.

Moreover, this unpaid care work is not factored into the calculation of the gross domestic product (GDP). As such, it is taken for granted and remains invisible to policymakers and planners. Debbie Budlender, a prominent South African researcher, estimated unpaid care work in South Africa to range between 11% and 30% of GDP. Women spent three times more time on unpaid care work than men.

Similarly, gender norms undergird paid care work in the social service or caring professions. Social workers employed in non-profit organisations (NPOs) earn significantly lower salaries than those in the public sector. This is so, despite the fact that NPOs deliver the bulk of welfare facilities and services, and end up subsidising the government.

Welfare services and development programmes remain underfunded. Nominal increases are budgeted for over the next three years and will not reduce the backlog at a time when the demand for services has increased due to a lack of jobs, high food prices and overall economic decline. Although the government’s National Development Plan 2030 proposed a complementary role for NPOs in the delivery of welfare services, it says little about how this is to be done and neither does it have anything to say about the gendered nature of welfare services.

Gender and social protection

South Africa is considered a leader for its expansive social protection (grants) programme in the Global South. Despite negative views about such grants, positive outcomes are achieved in reducing poverty and inequality, with particular benefits for women.

The design of the country’s child support grant shifted away from the European and British welfare-state models – where public support was contingent on the loss of earnings of the male breadwinner and tacitly supported the marriage-based nuclear family. The child support grant policy recognised that the primary caregiver of a child could be either a male or female, and be a biological relative of the child or not. It took into account the large numbers of children who lived apart from their biological parents and anticipated the possibility of increasing care burdens on women and families due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The child support grant represents some degree of public responsibility for child care for disadvantaged families, even though the monetary value of the grant is small. Despite access to the grant being gender neutral, most beneficiaries are women. Our research at the Centre for Social Development in Africa shows that the grant increases women’s financial and decision-making powers, which benefits both women and children.

Towards a fairer welfare dispensation

Care is crucial to social and economic development. But the gendered nature of welfare and care regimes is seldom interrogated. Unless countries in the South grapple with finding ways to redistribute care responsibilities in more equitable ways, women will continue to pay the price of social reproduction in the home, the family, community and society at large.

The solutions are not easy, as families will continue to remain the main providers of care. Innovative solutions might be found in the provision of infrastructure support. This could be through the delivery of basic services to ease the burden of care such as water, electricity, sanitation, housing and transport costs.

The burden of care could also be eased through finding creative ways of expanding access to child-care services and supporting households to boost their income-earning capacity, such as support for livelihood strategies and combining cash transfers with other supportive family and household-level interventions.

A further trend points in the direction of rethinking cash transfers to be more gender transformative in design, implementation and in the monitoring and evaluation of outcomes. South Africa’s child support grant achieves this to some extent but there are limitations, such as the fact that few men take up the grant and, where they do, we do not know what the gender dynamics are.

Research shows that money channelled via women is more likely to benefit child well-being. We do not know whether the same outcomes apply when men are the beneficiaries.

Much of the policy thinking is beginning to shift to understanding how a package of social and economic policies might work together to achieve more gender-equitable outcomes that could also move beyond income.

Simply put, for social protection to be transformative, it needs to be gender transformative, and move beyond fulfilling women’s rights and working for one-dimensional notions of equality. Transformative social protection policies might be able to move society further along the road towards genuine social justice for all members of society.

This is an edited version of the Walter Friedlander Memorial delivered at the University of California, Berkeley, recently.