This paper draws on two case studies – South Africa and Kerala, India – to discuss the gender
implications of social protection responses to Covid-19 in 2020. The impacts of the crisis have been
strongly gendered. The rapid onset of the crisis in early 2020 severely disrupted livelihoods, and these
impacts were strongly mediated by existing gender inequalities in the labour market, gendered roles and
responsibilities around care work, and also household composition. The high number of female-headed
households in South Africa, for example, and the role of women as the main providers of food and
household care and well-being, meant that women shouldered a disproportionate burden of the crisis.
This has been further compounded by the fact that women typically have fewer coping strategies in
terms of savings and access to other support compared to men.
The paper finds that, despite the strong evidence on the gendered impacts of the crisis, the
social protection measures put in place as crisis response in 2020 have varied significantly in their
approaches to addressing gendered needs. Both case studies showed that pre-existing delivery
systems were critical to the fast roll-out of benefits (top-up or new benefits) reaching female
beneficiaries, based on pre-existing eligibility criteria. For example, in South Africa, once the policy
decision had been made to roll out the Caregiver Allowance, it was rapidly distributed to 7 million
recipients – the majority of whom are women.
Looking beyond coverage levels, however, highlights that the level, type and duration of responses
have been far from adequate, given the sheer need and multiple impacts generated by the crisis.
Where positive lessons have emerged, including in Kerala’s comprehensive package of support
in 2020, the following facilitating factors were identified: strong political leadership at all levels,
preparedness plans in place, strong coordination between multiple actors at national and local
levels (including gender-responsive organisations), gender experts and gender data feeding into
the response (including real-time data from the community), the availability of additional services
at the local level, and the presence of a strong and engaged civil society, including women’s
organisations, self-help groups and unions.
This paper also looked at whether crisis responses offer an opportunity to strengthen the gender responsiveness of the social protection system in the future. Our findings from the two case
studies indicate that the extent to which social protection measures recognised and responded
to gendered needs in response to Covid-19 depended on their design and implementation before
the crisis. While the fact that issues of gender equality have been raised in public and policy
discussions during the crisis is encouraging, this has not necessarily translated into practical
programming changes. Perhaps most concerning is that potentially negative effects may take
hold in future, especially in the context of shrinking fiscal space. In South Africa, for example, a key
concern is that women’s individual entitlements to social protection could be undermined by the
restrictive eligibility criteria put in place during the Covid-19 response, effectively limiting many
women’s eligibility to the Caregiver Allowance. In Kerala, a key concern arising from the pandemic
response is the continued exploitation of women’s voluntary or underpaid work in delivering a
comprehensive package of interventions.
Looking forward, therefore, we provide a number of policy recommendations based around:
(i) strengthening gender-responsive routine social protection systems, and (ii) preparing the
social protection system to respond to future crises in a gender-responsive way, as follows.
Strengthening gender-responsive routine social protection systems:
• Extend social protection and ensure women’s individual entitlement to social protection in their
• Recognise and value unpaid (and underpaid) work through social protection system.
• Build partnerships and work with specialist organisations on gender equality and women’s
rights to inform, plan and implement gender-responsive social protection.
• Strengthen sex-disaggregated and gender-specific data collection and analysis to inform
decisions on social protection design and implementation.
Preparing the social protection system to respond to future crises in a genderresponsive way:
• Plan and prepare for crisis response, with clear gender-equality objectives and strategies,
alongside coordination mechanisms to engage with a coalition of national and local actors.
• Invest in gender-responsive and inclusive systems and implementation infrastructure to build
routine social protection, and to enable rapid roll-out in crisis response.
• Identify opportunities to support women’s and girls’ rights and empowerment, even in crisis
response, including ensuring that policy choices do not undermine gender equality, and that
they are embedded as part of a broader strategy supporting women’s and girls’ empowerment
Holmes, R. and Hunt, A. (2021) Have social protection responses to Covid-19
undermined or supported gender equality? Emerging lessons from a gender perspective. Working
paper. London: ODI (www.odi.org/en/publications/have-social-protection-responses-to-covid-19-