The motivation behind targeting transfers to women is the assumption that providing cash directly to women will also give them more say in how to spend it and generate different or more preferrable outcomes. Previous studies show that women tend to spend more money on children and that transfers provided to women have increased investments in children’s health and education (Hidrobo et al. 2018; Bastagli et al. 2016; Fiszbein and Schady, 2009).
It is not always clear, however, whether these increases result primarily from the household having more money or from women having more of a say in how it is spent; one review of research on cash transfers and women’s decision-making power in a variety of countries found that such power increased in only five of the 16 studies included (Peterman et al. 2019). This finding raises questions about whether targeting transfers to women matters as much as the conventional wisdom suggests.
In new research from Egypt, we more closely examine the role of gender norms in these mixed findings using quantitative and qualitative methods—uncovering a complex picture in which a cash transfer program targeted to women actually reduces some women’s decision-making power, in part due to the persistence of gender norms. Yet, women also report good experiences with the program, along with positive attitudes and enhanced feelings of self-worth specifically associated with the transfers having been provided to women.
Purely quantitative surveys don’t always capture what decision-making power really means to women, so we complement our quantitative findings with qualitative interviews to better understand the nuances regarding how men and women perceive decision-making.
In our paper, we study the impact of Egypt’s national cash transfer program, the Takaful and Karama Program (TKP) on women’s decision-making power in their households. The program provides monthly transfers directly to women, which amount to approximately 17% of household expenditure, representing a large influx of cash that families must decide how to use.
We measured decision-making power by asking women the degree to which they can make spending decisions across several domains, including major and minor household expenditures, schooling for children, clothes for themselves, food, and family medical treatments. Our main results aggregate all these domains into one measure of control over decision-making and compare TKP beneficiary households to similar non-TKP beneficiary households using an evaluation methodology called regression discontinuity.
We find that TKP had no effect on the aggregate index of women’s control over decision-making on average in the full sample. We then split the sample into two groups, women who had any education and those who had never been to school and conduct the analysis separately for the two samples. We find no impact of TKP on women’s decision-making power the first group, but among women with no formal education, cash transfers reduced women’s control over decision-making. Such women are older on average and report more traditional gender norms, and thus may have weaker bargaining power within their households.
After conducting the quantitative analysis, we conducted qualitative interviews with some of the women and men in our sample, both from households that received transfers and those that did not. A strong theme emerged from this exercise: Even if women do participate in decision-making, many women believe that men need to be perceived as the primary decision-makers in the household. One female respondent remarked that:
“If I want something expensive I tell him, and he says fine, get what you want. But I have to tell him. He won’t disapprove, but the man has to keep his figure in the house, and in front of his kids. I need to give him his ‘prestige’ in front of his kids. I’m the one who gives them their pocket money, but I tell them it’s your dad who got the money.”
Interviews revealed that men’s involvement in decision-making is widely accepted as a cultural norm and that transfers are widely treated as equivalent to other household resources rather than being managed separately by the woman. The interviews also showed that by increasing the amount of money available to households, TKP expanded the number of decisions to be made, and this created new opportunities for men to be involved in deciding how money would be spent. The norm that men play qualitative survey interviews. This finding is consistent with quantitative evidence that, among TKP recipients who had no formal education, men became more involved in household decision-making.
The interviews also showed that in many of the communities in the program, women are discouraged from working outside the household except in cases of extreme necessity. This local gender norm explains why the quantitative analysis found women receiving the transfers were less likely to work. Not working outside the household has been found in many other contexts to reduce women’s influence over household decision-making.
While these findings might suggest the transfers actually disempowered women in important ways, the interviews also revealed that many women are happy with the program, especially because it reduced the difficulty and stress of having very limited incomes. They also pointed to a benefit to women’s perceptions of self-worth that we could not measure with quantitative data alone. One woman said:
“It’s good this way [that the transfers are targeted to women] … the state’s caring for me. In other words, it’s given me dignity.”
Our work emphasizes the need to consider context when designing cash transfer programs. While it is not possible from our study to know what would have happened if transfers were given to men instead of women, targeting transfers to women did not produce expected gains for women’s decision-making in the case of TKP. Nevertheless, women perceived the choice to give transfers to women positively, suggesting the program was successful in other ways. Our results suggest that policymakers designing cash transfer programs in new contexts may want to validate design assumptions, and goals and objectives may need to be defined more carefully, considering cultural context.