Nepal is in the midst of a demographic shift. Over the past three decades, its fertility rate has declined and population growth has stalled. The country has quickly moved from a high-mortality, high-fertility society to a low-mortality, low-fertility society. Although this shift is an encouraging indicator of development, the changing demography means new challenges for the people and their government as Nepal navigates a rapid transition to an “aging” and then an “aged” society (defined as more than 14 percent of the population being 65 years and older).
This aging population remains vulnerable to natural disasters, public health emergencies, and poverty—45 percent of households earn less than $2 a day.
DAI Global Health recently analysed the equitability and inclusivity of the existing social protection system in Nepal to inform the U.K. Department for International Development’s (DFID) Resilience and Inclusion for Nepal (RI4N) Programme. Applying a gender equality and social inclusion (GESI) lens to Nepal’s Social Security Allowance scheme—which comprises old age allowance, single women’s allowance, disability allowance, endangered ethnicity allowance, and the child grant—the report’s authors, Rebecca Holmes, Chhaya Jha, and Suravi Bhandary, identify key aspects of the scheme that must be addressed to ensure that social protection in Nepal reduces economic instability, achieves stability, and builds resilience.
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Photo courtesy: USAID Nepal.
Current Scope of Social Security Allowance
Some Social Security Allowance programmes in Nepal are supporting vulnerable and excluded groups to meet their basic needs. In particular, the engagement of women and girls provides them with indirect benefits such as greater mobility, access to public and private institutions, and more financial inclusion.
However, the current programmes were not designed with a gender-inclusive lens. They lack explicit objectives on how to meet the needs of women and girls in particular, focusing instead on the betterment of “vulnerable” groups more broadly.
“Our interviews highlighted three key reasons women and girls may face higher levels of exclusion from the schemes,” write the authors. “First, women face particular barriers in terms of their awareness of the schemes. … Dalits and other marginalised ethnic groups do not have access to the necessary information, may not speak Nepali, may not be allowed access to public spaces, or live in more remote areas. Second, women and girls have lower birth registration rates and face challenges in obtaining correct citizenship or marriage documentation. … [due to] early marriage and inter-caste marriages. And third, women and girls face more acute mobility constraints to enroll in the schemes.”
Shifting the allowance from manual cash payments to the formal banking system has been seen as an opportunity to improve the financial inclusion of women in Nepal. However, lower levels of literacy among women, the special circumstances of disabled women and of women from lower castes in particular, and the generally low familiarity with banking institutions all pose barriers. Mothers with small children, the elderly—who may be physically unable to get into bank buildings—and people burdened with other time-consuming domestic tasks also have difficulty accessing financial institutions.
The authors discovered that 20 percent more men receive the country’s disability allowance compared with women, and a higher percentage of male recipients of the Child Grant (52 percent going to boys compared to 48 percent to girls). There are complex reasons for this disparity bound in the social norms of Nepal and in the management of the Social Security Allowance. For example, poor coordination of schemes leading to fragmentation, the use of disaggregated data in a systematic monitoring framework, and poor social mobilisation support for women and girls.
Photo courtesy: USAID Nepal.
Recommendations for Reform
To address current gaps in Nepal’s Social Security Allowance programmes and promote a more equitable and inclusive social protection system, the authors make several recommendations:
1. Invest in robust policies for an inclusive and equitable system, taking prompt action at national and local levels. The Government of Nepal should integrate GESI considerations into the Social Security Allowance programmes, with technical support from DFID and its development partners to build capacity on GESI and social protection, including support to government bodies such as the Ministry of Finance, Department of National Identity and Civil Registration, and Ministry of Home Affairs.
DFID and its partners should develop coordinated messaging on the value of integrating GESI objectives and considerations in social protection policy and programming.
The Government of Nepal can improve policy coherence among social protection programmes to address the intersecting vulnerabilities that people face; for example, allowing beneficiaries of disability grants to receive other grants that may be applicable to their circumstances.
Locally, we recommend the launch of knowledge-sharing activities that will create opportunities for skills training on GESI. Grassroots and civil society organisations representing women and girls have a key role to play in raising awareness and advocating for the rights of marginalised and vulnerable groups, which will in turn bring the social protection dialogue to the national stage.
2. Increase coverage and improve access to social protection for women and girls. Local governments must address the exclusion faced by women, particularly women with disabilities, and collaborate with civil society groups to reach the most marginalised women in their communities. The government should help women get documentation that will enable registration for social services—particularly for groups with low levels of literacy or for non-Nepali speakers. DFID and its partners can assist by ensuring that gender-specific banking solutions are available to women.
3. Build an evidence base on GESI and social protection to inform social protection policy. If Nepal is to understand the extent of women and girls’ exclusion from assistance programmes, it needs a comprehensive evidence base. Putting this together will entail reviewing the existing government database and ensuring that information systems capture relevant indicators, are robust, and are publicly available so they may be utilised in research studies. Assessing the existing data will enable stakeholders to grasp the extent of exclusion, measure the impact of the schemes on women and girls, and inform adaptive programming in Nepal.
DFID and partners can support the government in developing GESI indicators that will enable Nepal’s monitoring and management information systems to better capture the experience of beneficiaries.
4. Identify opportunities for social protection to maximise progress in equality, women and girls’ empowerment, and social inclusion. Cash transfers have the potential to transform the lives of women and girls. To realize this promise, the government should, among other things, establish referral mechanisms that help women with less mobility access services, and alert existing beneficiaries to other services relevant to them.
5. Provide services and programmes in addition to cash transfers. It may be feasible to collaborate with existing organisations to establish a “cash-plus” system focused on empowering women and girls. The idea would be to complement the cash allowance system with assistance such as skills and knowledge training, economic opportunities, and facilitated networking—among women’s groups, for example. Technical assistance might encompass resilience-building activities such as climate-smart agriculture, disaster preparation, and protection interventions for at-risk populations.
A gender-responsive and inclusive social protection system can have significant positive impacts on gender equality, and women’s and girls’ empowerment and opportunities, as well as strengthening state-citizen relations and promoting an inclusive and equitable society, the authors write. For such gains to be realised, the way in which social protection programmes and systems are designed and implemented are crucial. Programmes with explicit objectives to address gender inequality and support women and girls’ empowerment—and which are matched by investment in implementation—have positive effects. Addressing the gaps and challenges above would support the goals of DFID, the Government of Nepal, and its other development partners, in tackling social and economic exclusion, to deliver constitutional rights of social protection, and build a stronger and more equitable social protection system.
To read more about the key findings and policy recommendations, download the full report here.
Elo Otobo is a Project Manager for DAI Global Health.