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September 26, 2013

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September 26, 2013

The gender equality and poverty arguments for social pensions in Asia

September 26, 2013
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For those among you who find a blog length piece about as much as you can absorb in a busy working day, I recommend signing up to the ‘one pagers’Old lady walking Asia produced by the International Policy Center on Inclusive Growth in Brazil (a UNDP/Government of Brazil joint venture). They provide nice summaries of new research. Here’s last month’s one pager on ‘gender and old-age pension protection in Asia’, by Dr Athina Vlachantoni and Professor Jane Falkingham, both of the University of Southampton:

‘Providing old-age social protection for women is a major policy challenge, as women’s working lives tend to be more diverse than men’s, often including periods of care-giving and part-time work. In addition, workers in the informal sector, where the majority of women work, are excluded from mainstream contributory pension systems designed for formal workers. Although social pensions can contribute significantly to lifting many women in low-income countries out of poverty, protection systems need to consider much more the diversity in women’s life courses and working lives.

Across the world, women are more likely than men to experience poverty in old age, because of behavioural or life-course differences between men and women, and institutional features of modern pension systems. Gender differences in life courses lie in the areas of life expectancy and labour market participation rates. On average in 2009 in Asia, men could expect to live for 67.5 years, and women for 71.2 years. Living longer than men, women are more likely to experience widowhood in later life, to live alone and to face poverty for longer. In most countries globally, women are less likely than men to be employed in the formal labour sector, and are as or more likely than men to be employed informally. Women in Western Asia are the least likely to be employed, and women in Eastern Asia the most (see chart).asia pensions and gender

Social pensions present several advantages from a gender perspective—for example, they offer a safety net for informal workers with low earnings and few or no pension contributions. Also, as the eligibility criteria of social pension schemes often include conditions that women are more likely to meet than men, such as reaching older age or being widowed, social pensions are more likely to target older women than men—in Asia as across the world. Social pensions may also be used by policymakers and aid organisations as a mechanism for promoting greater gender equality. Finally, in addition to reducing poverty, social pensions can affect intra-family dynamics, gender relations and decision-making processes within the household by affording women greater financial security.

But social pensions have limitations. The level of benefits in most countries is low and hardly sufficient to lift beneficiaries out of poverty, while the effectiveness of social pensions depends on the extent to which they fit with contributory systems of social protection, as well as broader systems of protection including health care provision. Given that elderly women in Asia are more likely than elderly men to face poverty, the inclusion of a gender dimension in the design of social pension schemes could enhance their effectiveness in targeting those most at need.’

Very nice argument, bringing together several important issues – gender equality, the effectiveness of cash transfers as a form of social protection, the importance of the informal economy and the increasing need to focus on older people who constitute a large slice of the ‘chronic poor’ and thus should be a major focus in attempts to ‘get to zero’ on global poverty.

See here for previous post on ageing and development.


  1. Thanks Duncan for this interesting perspective.

    It’s correct when you say that poverty hits men and women differently. Women are more vulnerable and prone to living with high levels of poverty as they grow older.


    Amit Sengupta
    New Delhi

  2. Great you’ve picked up on this Duncan.

    The point about low benefit levels is accurate in Asia, where the existing social pensions tend to be pretty meagre, but not of all countries. Brazil’s social pension = set at the minimum wage – has been one of the major contributors to reduced inequality in the country (bigger than the much-lauded Bolsa Familia). Venezuela introduced the glamourously named “Gran Mision Amor Mayor” which has a benefit of over 40% average income.

    For info, we’re holding a conference next week with the Church of Sweden exploring the parallels between social pensions in Sweden (the first step of its own welfare state) and the development of social protection systems in developing countries today:


    For more on social pensions you might want to visit our Pension Watch site which has details of all of the 100+ social pensions globally, plus various other resources:


  3. This is a huge issue that will only grow in importance as populations age… I have no affiliation with Help Age International but I do work on social protection in Southeast Asia, which is how I came across their very cool online social pensions calculator. You can set the parameters (country, benefit level, eligibility from what age) and it will work out the cost of a universal social pension. They’ve also got a huge amount of information on social pension programs around the world. Really useful!


  4. Putting the gender perspective before poverty reduction is to me the wrong way around and divisive.

    The article states “Social pensions present several advantages from a gender perspective”. Surely it should say “Social pensions present several advantages in helping old people in poverty”, and then go on to say that most of those helped will be women.

    If the aim is to help older people who have had little opportunity to save due to working for less time and not in the formal sector, then use social pensions. If the aim is to help poorer older women, then only pay the pensions to women.

  5. Interesting post. For those who want to drill down into the issues more, visit http://www.genderanddevelopment.org for access to articles from the journal Gender & Development’s Ageing issue (Vol 17 No 3) and our Social Protection issue (Vol 19 no 2). New and improved search function I am assured by colleagues – and you can see the whole content list for each issue to get a sense of the scope and range. Co-editor for the Ageing issue was Dr Penny Vera Sanso, well-known for her research into the gender dimensions of ageing (or the ageing dimensions of gender – people look at these things through their own lens of analysis, and one is no more divisive than the other, provided we arrive at an analysis which focuses on the realities faced by elderly women and men, surely?)

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