Vulnerable groups: needs and challenges

Women and girls

It is often women who require social protection interventions, as they are disproportionately vulnerable due to lack of capital, high wage differentials and gendered work norms, bearing the responsibility for childcare, and exclusion from basic services. Social assistance programmes, particularly conditional cash transfers, are often aimed at women as the recipient of the transfer and manager of the funds – 94 per cent of Bolsa Família recipients are women (Holmes & Jones, 2010: 1). In Sub-Saharan Africa, where unconditional programmes are more common, it is much less common to specify a female recipient (Garcia & Moore, 2012: 218). Programmes have positively impacted women and children’s health, girls’ education, and women’s knowledge levels and empowerment within the household and community.

However, gender is rarely used as an analytical lens to assess programmes (Ganju Thakur et al., 2009). Newer analysis shows that programmes relying on female beneficiaries tend to reinforce and draw on ‘traditional’ values which assume women’s altruistic roles towards children and families. This only empowers women as mothers and carers, not as individuals (Molyneux, 2008). Beneficiary women cannot always increase their control over household income, and conditions may only increase their domestic workload and time burden (Holmes & Jones, 2013: 70).

Key texts

Ganju Thakur, S., Arnold, C. & Johnson, T. (2009). Gender and Social Protection. In Promoting Pro-Poor Growth: Social Protection. POVNET.
This chapter of the OECD’s social protection strategy describes the challenges of integrating gender-sensitivity into social protection programming. It notes that gender is rarely used as a differentiating lens through which to understand poor people’s exposure to risk and vulnerability. It outlines linkages between gender-sensitive programming and growth; gender-related risks; knowledge gaps; good practices; and policy implications.
See full text

Holmes, R. & Jones, N. (2013) Gender and Social Protection in the Developing World: Beyond Mothers and Safety Nets. London: Zed Books.
This book introduces a gender lens to social protection debates. Drawing on empirical evidence from poor households and communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the book provides insights into the effects of a range of social protection instruments. It concludes that, with relatively simple changes to design and with investment in implementation capacity, social protection can contribute to transforming gender relations at the individual, intra-household and community levels.

See also: Rohwerder, B. (2014). Social protection programmes supporting women survivors of domestic violence (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1130). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.


Children are more vulnerable to malnutrition, disease and abuse than adults, and are over-represented among the poor (UNICEF, 2012). Three elements of child vulnerability are: 1) biological and physical needs; 2) strategic needs (children’s limited levels of autonomy and dependence on adults); and 3) institutional invisibility and lack of voice in policy agendas (Roelen & Sabates-Wheeler, 2012). There is a window of opportunity for investing in children, with diminishing rates of return the older they get (UNICEF, 2012).

The purpose of social protection targeted at children is to help meet their basic needs, expand their opportunities to reach their full potential, overcome barriers to access services, and strengthen families’ capacity to care for children (UNICEF, 2012). Primarily, children need access to health and education services, and care. Social protection can also target care-givers to meet children’s needs, who may be parents, grandparents or other guardians.

Key texts

UNICEF. (2012). Integrated Social Protection Systems: Enhancing Equity for Children – UNICEF Social Protection Strategic Framework. New York: UNICEF.
UNICEF’s approach and vision for social protection are presented in its first global social protection framework. It makes the case for child-sensitive social protection and argues for the expansion of inclusive, integrated social protection systems. The framework discusses the main components of effective integrated systems as well as current debates including social protection financing, expansion of coverage, and inclusive design. It also highlights emerging challenges in areas such as humanitarian action, adolescence, migration, and urban settings.
See full text

Roelen, K. & Sabates-Wheeler, R. (2012). A Child-Sensitive Approach to Social Protection: Serving Practical and Strategic Needs. Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, 20(3), 291-306.
Child-sensitive social protection (CSSP) has gained considerable momentum, particularly in a developing country context. CSSP requires a critical perspective and for context to guide its design and delivery. Claims about what makes social protection child-sensitive are often based on (widely agreed) assumptions rather than sound evidence about what works for children in a particular situation. There are no universal truths about how to design and deliver child-sensitive social protection. CSSP need not be a separate form of social protection; all types of interventions have the potential to carry a degree of child-sensitivity, although no current set of interventions can be considered child-sensitive across the board.
See full text

Older people

Older people face challenges including: lack of access to regular income, work and health care; declining physical and mental capacities; and dependency within the household (Sepulveda, 2010). Without income or work, older people tend to depend on others for their survival. They also usually have greater need for healthcare services and for domestic help. Women are likely to live longer than men, but becoming a widow may increase vulnerabilities if they have no land rights, assets or mobility to seek employment (Sepulveda, 2010).

Older people’s interaction with social protection is usually in the form of an old age pension, a type of cash transfer. Contributory pensions are limited as they rely on formal employment, and coverage rates are low in low- and middle-income countries (Holzmann et al., 2009). This also has a gender dimension as fewer women than men are in the formal sector (Holzmann et al., 2009). Social pensions therefore address a gap for poor people, particularly women, and are politically popular (ADB, 2012). Older people, usually women, may also care for grandchildren, and may receive child benefits for this. There is a strong trend for this household role in Sub-Saharan Africa, with less evidence from other regions.

Key texts

Sepulveda, M. (2010). The question of human rights and extreme poverty. Report of the independent expert to the United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council, Fourteenth Session on 31 March 2010.
This UN report examines whether social pensions help realise the right to social security and an adequate standard of living. It highlights that large numbers of people work outside formal employment and traditional informal support systems for older people are changing under the pressure of increased longevity, widespread poverty, HIV/AIDS and migration. The paper therefore recommends that states recognise social pensions as critical elements for the progressive realisation of the right to social security for older people.
See full text

Holzmann, R., Robalino, D. A. & Takayama, N. (2009). The role of social pensions and other retirement income transfers: closing the coverage gap. Washington DC: World Bank.
The book has four specific objectives: (a) to discuss the role of retirement income transfers in the context of a strategy for expanding old-age income security and preventing poverty among the elderly; (b) to take stock of international experience with design and implementation; (c) to identify key policy issues that need to receive attention during the design and implementation phases; and (d) to offer some preliminary policy recommendations and propose next steps.
See full text

ADB. (2012). Social Protection for Older Persons: Social Pensions in Asia. Manila: Asian Development Bank.
This book examines the effectiveness and relevance of social pensions in supporting older persons in Asia. It discusses the political economy and financial sustainability of social pension reform; implications for gender equity and social rights; and design and implementation challenges. Case studies from Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand, Viet Nam, and South Caucasus and Central Asia provide key lessons for informing development policy and practice.
See full text

See also: HelpAge International: Social Pensions Database

People with disabilities (PWD)

People with disabilities are often (sometimes incorrectly) assumed to be unable to work and therefore more permanent recipients of social protection. Evidence shows that PWD have higher rates of poverty, and face physical barriers, communication barriers, attitudinal barriers, and a lack of sensitivity or awareness (Rohwerder, 2014). PWD tend to be grouped together in social protection programming, with little distinction made between different kinds of disabilities, which may be physical or mental (Rohwerder, 2014). Disability also intersects with other inequalities, meaning disabled women and disabled older people may need special consideration.

Disability is rising on the social protection agenda, but coverage of PWD is still low. PWD may be included in mainstream programmes if they meet standard poverty criteria, or they may be targeted specifically (Gooding & Marriot, 2009). Mainstream programming is perhaps the easiest form of inclusion, but the programme benefits may not meet the specific needs of PWD. The most common form of support is unconditional cash transfers, but not all disabled people require social assistance grants (Schneider et al., 2011).

Key texts

Gooding, K. & Marriot, A. (2009). Including Persons with Disabilities in Social Cash Transfer Programmes in Developing Countries. Journal of International Development, 21(5), 685-698.
Drawing on secondary material from literature reviews and interviews, the paper considers challenges in the design of cash transfer programmes, particularly barriers to access and the complexities of assessment, and the impact of transfers for persons with disabilities. The paper identifies key principles for including PWD in social transfer schemes, specifically: strong legal foundations; participation of persons with disabilities in programme design, implementation and evaluation; and embedding transfers within a wider framework of action to tackle discrimination and empower persons with disabilities.
See full text

Schneider, M., Waliuya, W., Munsanje, J. & Swartz, L. (2011). Reflections on Including Disability in Social Protection Programmes. IDS Bulletin, 42(6), 38-44.
This article presents reflections on disability in social protection, specifically in social assistance programmes, in Uganda, Zambia and South Africa. There are clear positive impacts from cash transfers, in basic needs and control and independence, leading to improved health status, access to investment opportunities, increased sense of worth, and greater participation in community activities. The paper looks briefly at: (a) factors associated with disability that create vulnerabilities for PWD and their household; (b) disability targeting; and (c) measurement of disability.
See full text

See also:

Those not reached

The majority of the extreme poor in developing countries remain uncovered by social protection (Gentilini et al., 2014). Those working in the informal sector or the self-employed (more women than men) are usually not reached by state insurance schemes or contributory pensions, and their irregular wages do not support regular insurance contributions. Migrants usually have trouble accessing programmes aimed only at citizens, although they are often among the poorest.