Landmark study shows how child grants empower women in Brazil and South Africa

Two of the countries that have the largest programmes globally.
Grants were found to help improve the health, including mental health, of women. Image: EFE-EPA/Aaron Ufumeli

Since the mid-1990s, new approaches to poverty reduction have been introduced in countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Some have involved income transfer programmes that target poorer citizens based on various means tests. Most have targeted female caregivers, primarily mothers.

The most expansive child and family grants are in Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Argentina and South Africa, which has put in place the biggest social provision net in Africa.

The focus of our study was on Brazil and South Africa, two of the countries that have the largest programmes globally. The programmes were all designed to enhance child welfare. But as academics who have studied social policy in these countries, we felt it was important to assess the impact of income transfer programmes that move beyond a focus on child well-being only. In particular, we set out to examine if such transfers also elevated women in their homes, societies and political systems.

We set out to compare South Africa’s child support grant and Brazil’s Bolsa Família.

Bolsa Família was launched in 2003 and is the largest cash transfer programme for children and families in the world, reaching more than 46 million people a year in Brazil. The country has a population of 212 million people.

South Africa’s child support grant system was launched in 1998. It makes monthly disbursements to 12.8 million children of a total population of 59.6 million people.

Though they have different population sizes, Brazil and South Africa have a great deal in common. They have similar economic profiles and demographic characteristics. For example, among other similarities, they have the highest levels of income inequality.

We conducted fieldwork in Doornkop, Soweto, a large, densely populated black urban settlement which comprises one third of Johannesburg’s population. We also looked at three municipalities across two states of Northeast Brazil.

We found that regular income assistance boosted the self-esteem and agency of women recipients in both countries. Our findings also underscored the added benefits of Brazil’s cash transfer programme because it is embedded in a stronger public health and social service network than is the case in South Africa.

The broader lesson we took from our findings was that income transfer programmes must operate in deliberate coordination with ancillary social service institutions to deliver the maximum benefits for women’s empowerment.

Three dimensions of empowerment

Our analysis centred on the impact of child and family cash transfers on three dimensions of empowerment.

First, whether adult women beneficiaries experienced heightened independence in financial decision making; second, whether they experienced enhanced control over their bodies; and, finally, whether they experienced psycho-social growth.

This was a departure from the way in which empowerment is usually conceptualised in academic research where the focus tends to be on how and whether gendered norms are changing. Instead, inspired by economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, we viewed empowerment as the expansion of assets and capabilities that give women more control over their lives, enhancing agency to eliminate inequities and to unleash greater freedoms.

We listened closely to the voices of women recipients, in focus groups, individual conversations and surveys.

In the case of Bolsa Família, we also set out to understand the broader context in which the child support grant system connected with other social services. Brazil attaches conditions to its child support grants. These include children having to attend school regularly, children under five receiving standard immunisations and prenatal care for pregnant women.

To cover all these bases we interviewed teachers and principals, social workers and primary health care officials.

In South Africa, grant receipt is largely unconditional, except that a child should attend school. We assessed the impact of the child support grant on a range of social and economic indicators such as school attendance, access to health and other services, food security, income and livelihoods and women’s empowerment.

Enhancing women’s status

Our findings suggest the social grants triggered positive dynamics for women’s empowerment in both countries, even though the programmes were not intended for this purpose.

For example, the cash transfers contributed to advancing the standing of women beneficiaries. We found that:

  • women were more able to meet basic needs, which reduced stress because they were better able to cope with the precariousness of living in poverty;
  • most women recipients experienced heightened financial control and decision making vis-à-vis their partners. They withdrew the money themselves and exercised control over spending decisions;
  • the grants helped boost self esteem and agency. Beneficiaries in both countries reported an increased sense of status in their communities.

In both countries the grants helped reduce poverty levels, particularly among the lower quintile of earners. Both systems helped reduce the depth of poverty among female versus male-headed households.

But it was also clear that Bolsa Família went further than the child support grant in some key areas. For example, it induced beneficiaries to get basic identity documents, which improved access to a wider system of health and social work services. Having documents also meant that women could better navigate bureaucracies and gave them a sense of social recognition and hope.

Next steps

The findings suggest that social grants can unleash positive dynamics for women’s empowerment even though the programmes were not intended for this purpose. Cash transfers don’t in and of themselves transform gender roles. Nevertheless, they help improve the standing of women beneficiaries in important ways. These include increasing social recognition, reducing levels of poverty and increasing financial control, decision making and agency.

But there are areas in which both Brazil and South Africa could improve. Cash transfers need to be combined with active labour market policies that boost job creation, livelihoods support and social services to enhance the economic inclusion of women.

There need to be skills and training programmes, as well as the provision of childcare and transportation.

Finally, our findings point to the need for South Africa to emulate Brazil by getting other government ministries and agencies on board to coordinate the delivery of other social services alongside the grants to boost results.The Conversation

Leila Patel, Professor of Social Development Studies, University of Johannesburg; Natasha Borges Sugiyama, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Wendy Hunter, Professor of Government, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.


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Dear Prof Patel, with respect, you sit in a bit of an Ivory Tower at your university; may I suggest you immediately spend some time – not in Soweto close to your work – on the Cape Flats to see for yourself how the child support (and R350) grants are nothing but booze and drug money for the child’s mother (and her latest boyfriend.)
Really Prof, there IS the odd exception I concede, but do yourself a favour and look further than Soweto to the vast Western Cape and Cape Flats population!
Of course I can’t speak for Brazil – I’ve never been there to see and experience for myself.

In effect, the child support grant acts as an unintended subsidy to the liqueur industry, just as the SASSA grant acts as an indirect subsidy to Shoprite. It still empowers the intended beneficiaries though. The mother can afford to buy her alcohol without having to sell her body first. It is empowering and liberating in that sense.

I live in close contact with this part of society. They are my next-door neighbours so to speak, because I am a farmer. The SASSA grant and the child support grant does an amazing job at lifting people out of abject poverty. I support these grants as long as they are affordable.

It is an indictment on the ANC that my fellow members of the human race are dependent on social grants, whereas they should have been employed at decent wages. This pathetic socialist government abuses taxpayers to fund their social grants projects that merely serves to alleviate the hardships that result from ANC policies! The ANC is the main driver of unemployment and therefore, the main cause of alcohol abuse.

Substance abuse, including alcohol abuse, is a symptom of a mental illness. When families escape the degrading and dehumanising hardships of poverty and unemployment, they stop abusing alcohol and they stop accomodating violent behaviour.

The taxpayer does get something in return for funding the social grant. Without it, we would have experienced a civil war already. A hungry man is an angry man. The Debt/GDP ratio warns us that we need to embrace a free-market economy with law and order and respect for property rights if we want to escape anarchy. These social grants and child grants only buy us time.

Total drivel and academic waffle seemingly devoid of any USEFUL investigation for any material influence or outcomes on the REAL drivers of reducing poverty, and producing better citizens.

Does giving grants (and especially without enforcing quid pro quo incentives, as in SA) actually REVERSE the current trajectory of ever more social gloom?

Definitely not going to get substantive answers if you rely on this waffle.

That may be true for some women. However, this has also led to an alarming rise in alcoholism among gogo’s who are supposed to be looking after the children.

Every woman who receives the child support grant is guilty of having children without enough resources.

They are not even meeting the first requirement of childcare, yet the authors have not addressed that.

The result of the mindless population growth is that SA has created millions more people than the economy can carry. The economy is suffocating under the excess population produced. And then the authors complain about inequality?

Took the words right out of my mouth. Child grants are only treating the symptoms. The root cause; irresponsible procreation, is the real problem. Child grants should be made conditional upon receiving contraceptive injections.

The writer/researcher isn’t perhaps the spouse of Economic Development/Competition and Trade& Industries minister Abraham Patel? Because that would explain a lot about the “landmark” study..

Exactly. Don’t breed them if you can’t feed them.!!
Grants should be for a max of two kids. The grant should be a coupon redeemable at eg, Shoprite, for basic foods at a discount. No booze. And while they there, get a contraceptive injection….

I wish to add: The “culture” of indigenous females having to prove that they can bear children before any same “culture” male will consider maybe to support the child if he feels comfortable with the arrangement is not imaginary, it is very real. Most males will still walk away and continue their wild oat sowing journey through life.
No point discussing with the taxpayer funded Council of Traditional Leaders. Their job is to defend the “culture” not to address the glaring breaches of basic human rights contained therein.
Of note is also the restriction of taxpayer funding of traditional or “cultural” affairs to population groups that are black indigenous. All others can rather go back where they came from.

Commentators tend to confuse the issues of “social projects” in a capitalist society with “socialism” or the redistributive policies of a socialist regime.

The political/economic doctrines of socialism, communism and fascism fall under the collectivist banner and imply the public, or shared ownership, of the means of production. The classical liberal policies of free-market capitalism, on the other hand, implies the private ownership of the means of production. Whether the property and productive assets belong to the state or to individuals determines the sustainability of the particular political system.

People tend to point to the Nordic countries as examples of the efficiency and sustainability of socialism. This is a fallacious argument because the means of production belong to individuals in these countries. Their legal systems protect individual property rights and they have even privatised state companies. The Nordic nations are strong capitalist countries. This is why they can sustainably afford huge and costly “social projects”.

This explains why social projects are unsustainable in contemporary South Africa. The communist ruling party implements redistributive policies and concentrates the means of production in the hands of the state. There are 700 SOE’s under government control. Then we also have the disastrous municipalities across the nation. All are utter failures and used as instruments of redistribution of taxpayer money. The socialist state is bankrupting itself because it disrespects property rights.

The bottom line is that a country needs a strong capitalist economy to support social projects. Classic liberal free-market policies create an economy that can sustain social projects and create a sustainable support network for the poor.

Sorry, Sensei, we have been over this tired argument extensively before.

Your proposal of the INNATE superiority of “property rights” in a “strong capitalist economy” – by itself – as THE solution to this problem, COMPLETELY DISINTEGRATES when one examines its application to the proverbial arch-example of the gold-standard proponent of your theory, the USA.

The USA is in SERIOUS decline vis a vis its peer competitors SOLELY because of NOT paying attention to the OVER-RIDING importance of decades-long changing demographic factors that have FAR MORE influence on the future success-factor of a nation than the parameters you think are uber-important!

I am NOT saying that unhinged Socialism is any more the answer, than unhinged Capitalism is. It is not a binary choice.

Simply that, the factors you are proposing as THE solution have NOT proven to be ANYWHERE near the success-factors that you posit them to be.

And very much so!

The practical solutions lie ELSEWHERE than these shining Ivory Towers floating in mystical lakes of mirage-like idealism.

Sensei does not point to the US for its holy grail Property Rights and Free Market. They are ranked at 36 in the world and declining.

An any case Singapore is the world’s no 1 free market with the strongest of policy for property rights.

I am a big fan of the idea for UBI but providing that certain conditions are prevalent. Many studies globally are happening right now in this field, they are looking at the various aspect of UBI including Mental Wellbeing, Financial Success and Contribution to the greater economy.

So far socialism ideas have largely been disproved in that it’s the word Free Goods and Free Services only ever ensures people are retained within the system.
UBI case studies have shown that people who get the money tend to be happier and find more ways of being happier like finding a job, quitting a job that they dislike, leaving an abusive relationship, these all point to greater individualism with most people actually saving some money for future investment/ expenses.

The word socialism unfortunately is a facade the has anything to do with social networking market system, it create a the impression that we are all working together but in fact it’s a Ruler And Slave system which is ironically not very socially agreeable.

Capitalism unfortunately has received a bad rap of late due to its mainly focused For Profit Solutions, this is propaganda of the leftists who are trying to blame someone else for their short comings.

Professor Jordan’s put it best when he said in his last book: Beyond Order: 12 more rules for Life. Whilst his original book was focus on the Antidote for Chaos, it’s meant to manage chaos in one’s life and without a certain amount of chaos (uncertainty) the ability to grow would not be possible.

South Africa is the best example of a hybrid political/economic system. We are a mixed economy where the state is the biggest employer and owns the largest chunk of the means of production in the form of SOEs and municipalities. The state is the biggest land owner by far.

You cannot be partially pregnant, and you cannot postpone the progression of pregnancy. Similarly, a country cannot be partially socialist or remain in equilibrium at a specific balance between property rights and the confiscation of property. The rate at which property is expropriated can only increase under a socialist regime. At some stage you will have to deal with the afterbirth.

Who funds the social projects which include the public sector wage bill? The GEPF is the largest lender to government. The implication is that the viablity of the state depends on the “confiscation” of the property of government employees. The state pays its employees with the properry of those emoloyees. The debt/GDP ratio warns that this debt cannot be repaid and the property will be partilally confiscated to service the debt.

Foreigners own 30 percent of our government debt. The government spends more on servicing that debt than on education. They expropriate the property of taxpayers to support the pension funds of wealthy German retirees.

Who benefit from these infringements on property rights? The government employees? The students? The recipients of grants? No, only the politically connected cadre benefits for the time being. Everybody else loses.

No hybrid system is sustainable because once the perversion of the law allows voters to expropriate property, then everybody will want to participate in the law-making process for their own benefit. Consider the fights between the various ANC factions and the EFF in this regard. They are fighting for control over the law-making process because this is the kind of behavoiur that socialism ultimately enables and rewards.

Look today we have more grant holders than actual taxpayers, now that is definitely not worth writing home about. I do not mind supporting the child grant but it has to be based on conditions like in Brazil, education,child school attendance, medical care, etc basic food supplies, no alcohol. For e.g if any of the conditions are broken you lose the grant. That’s fare, in some instances yes an exemption may be applied but universally we need to curb the child growth in SA. Pass on a law that also absent fathers who refuse to support their children should be arrested(there is a law, but I cannot find actual arrests), the very same treatment towards a sex offender should be dealt with to those fathers who just don’t pay child support or any form of support. This lack destroys early childhood development. Many of these grant receivers also are single parents whereby both incomes were present and when the father impregnates and leaves then the mother should take care of the child with the little available. In all fairness it falls both ways. This also adds additional strain on the mother hence even though she’s working will need to apply for a grant because fathers just do not care a d…n for their children. You can see in cape town how many single mothers are roaming in malls shops, eating venues, you hear the child call mommy more than daddy.I am being realistic but this behaviour adds to the child grant surplus too. We can have contraceptives in place but it also boils down to behaviour of men, if reproduce then surely I will need to look after my production, not increase production elsewhere and just write off my production at home.

To the Socialist minded person, a child grant seems the answer to everything.

To the Capitalist minded person, I would ask myself: “why is this women, carrying a child, not as yet active as a floor-supervisor at some factory as yet? (Where she and many others receives a salary, from the wealthy entrepreneur. Which is WAY BETTER THAN a grant!!)

WHY is this NOT happening, my dear Socialists?

Where did the factories and their employment go?!

None of these people should be getting grants, instead they should be employed by now.

This is what happens when my dear socialist comrades make anti-capitalist policies, by biting the invisible hand of economics. Now, all that you have left to offer the (now even more destitute) population, is by hanging onto straws called grants.

This country NEEDS more “Business School” departments within universities, and less of “Social Development Studies”! (…does the writer comes from the Soviet era?)

I’m afraid you’re out of luck. SA’s business schools are also infected with believers of socialism. Business in SA has little to do with the free market. Its all about winning government tenders.

It might be wise to read and learn the cause that resulted in the overthrow of the Romanian Ceaușescu regime.

We need a study on such programmes and the extent they go in countries such as the USA (food stamps) and France (Encouragement au Développement d’Entreprises Nouvelles)

Fact is, the labour in 3rd world countries still contribute huge chunks of money to fund lifestyles in the West. These grants are but a way to even things out a little. Don’t believe me? Look at the distance between a power station or a mine and a poor township filled with grant recipients.

“We need a study…” Actually, there’s already millions of studies and one more will make no difference!
How about we need plain COMMON SENSE! And eyes in our heads to SEE what’s happening around us becauy of all these child and other grants!

Some practical observations from Life itself: our domestic’s school-going son impregnated two of his classmates within weeks. After the respective births, the one mother decided to care for her baby herself and banned the father from any contact whatsoever. The family of the other mother, however, dumped the child into the lap of our domestic since her son was the impregnator. This carried on for a few months until the mother learned about the child grant. Immediately the child was taken from our domestic but returned a few weeks later, dirty, hungry and generally in a bad state. Now the mother and her family is also refusing to return the child grant, they collect it for “other” expenses. Meanwhile, we have started to notice how many young girls are waddling around in our rural community with a baby on the back. Hmmm, nice income without lifting a finger. Sorry to say, the child grant isn’t enough for its intended purpose, and now it is going for alcohol. Evil scheme, like cANCer.

That’s EXACTLY the case with at least 99% of child grant cases I’ve personally come across – and believe me, they were many! One exception was a 29-year old Congelese mom who saved it along with here small income as a cleaner to take her 3-year old back in her care. The child’s dad had agreed to keep their toddler in his and his new wife’s care temporarily to give the mother with the grant time to look for suitable accomodation where she and the child could live.
This is the ONLY success child-grant event out of about 100 I have personal knowledge of.
Let me hasten to add: the mother is a ardent follower of the 7th Adventist Church in which alcohol and “harmful practices” are prohibited.

Too much horizontal refreshment is the real problem resulting in millions of children. The Chines saw this and implemented the one child policy with great success.

We need to accept that we are a very poor country that simply does not have the GDP growth or intellectual capital skills to get us out of this deep hole and vicious circle.

But a one child policy in Africa…I cannot see that ever succeeding so very simply we will have to go cap in hand like beggars to the IMF time

Did your “Landmark” study happen to investigate any link between incentivised/subsidised motherhood and an increase in procreation? Particularly single-motherhood? Or is this link too obvious to be worthy of an academic study and too taboo to be objectively studied?

End of comments.



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