What do cash transfers mean for women’s experiences of violence and wellbeing in Syria?
Researchers at the International Rescue Committee explore the outcomes of emergency cash programming for women living in crises.
Co-authored by Alexandra Blackwell and Kathryn Falb
In the humanitarian sector, giving cash to people who are affected by crises — whether it be from natural disasters or armed conflicts — has quickly become one of the most widely used means of delivering aid. Often, this type of cash programming in acute emergencies is short-term in nature (around 3 months), designed to help people meet their basic needs like shelter or food, and unconditional in nature — meaning people don’t have to do anything to receive the cash.
Despite it being a commonly used approach, there is little evidence about how short-term cash programming may specifically influence the lives of women in crisis settings. Therefore, researchers at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) conducted a study with our Violence Prevention & Response and Economic Recovery & Development units in Raqqa Governorate, Syria.
To learn more about the experiences of women and the changes influenced by the cash program, we interviewed a group of 456 women before and after their households received three rounds of cash transfers from the IRC over a three-month period. The cash transfers targeted the heads of household, regardless of sex. In-depth interviews were conducted with a subset of 40 women at the end of the program, which provided systematic documentation of the experiences of women inside northeast Syria.
Given a variety of challenges, we did not have a control group for comparison, as it is generally unethical to withhold cash in emergencies from people who need it. Therefore, the findings are indicative of what may be occurring, but they cannot confirm that the cash was responsible for these changes. For more information on the methods or findings, please refer to the full report.
Between the beginning of the cash programming and at the end, we found that:
1. Women reported increased food security and reduced negative coping mechanisms
Food security consistently improved for women who were interviewed, including those who experienced more stigma and vulnerability, such as divorced or widowed women. Most households spent the cash on basic needs such as food and clothes, family medical expenses, or paying back debts. As they were better able to meet their basic household needs, the women reported relying less on negative coping mechanisms,* inclusive of incurring debt, begging, selling assets and skipping rent, at the end of the three months.
However, the short length of the emergency cash program did not enable women to change longer-term strategies to meet their basic needs, such as engagement in exploitative work or child labor.
*Negative coping mechanisms are learned behavioral patterns that people use to cope with difficult situations. In the humanitarian sphere, they are typically used in reference to the negative or harmful strategies used by individuals or households in difficult economic situations that may produce longer-term negative consequences and protection risks.
2. Perceived household needs and stress did not change for women, and depressive symptoms increased
Women expressed appreciation for the cash transfers and the benefits they had for their households, but they also shared their anxiety over how to meet their basic needs once the cash program ended. They voiced a desire for longer-term livelihood opportunities and referred to the lack of employment opportunities as a driver of stress. This uncertainty might explain women’s reported increase in depressive symptoms. Women also did not report a reduction in overall stress on the household.
3. Women reported an increased role in household spending decisions
Unmarried women reported making more decisions independently after receiving the cash transfers, and married women reported making more decisions jointly with their spouses. These changes were mostly related to decisions over inexpensive items such as food and general household assets.
In addition, though married women defined decisions as “joint,” some women in the qualitative interviews described that men largely determined when and to what extent they could play a role in household decisions.
4. Married women reported an overall increase in intimate partner violence
Before the cash program started, about half of all women reported intimate partner violence in their lifetime. The increase in reporting of sexual and economic abuse from baseline to endline could be a result of male household members reasserting and abusing their power over their wives, if women were perceived to have more control over economic resources. It could also be a result of more women disclosing experiences of violence as they became more comfortable with the research team, and the IRC program services provided in the geographical area, over the course of the study.
It is not possible to determine whether the changes from baseline to endline were the direct result of the cash transfer program because the study design did not include a comparison group. Other factors unrelated to the program may have caused these changes. Further research is needed to better understand these findings.
The study’s findings demonstrate the need to better integrate gender analysis into emergency cash programming for basic needs and to consider women’s longer-term economic needs when designing short-term cash programs.
To design effective humanitarian responses that support women and girls, practitioners need to:
- Design cash programming to monitor, minimize, and prevent risks to women and girls throughout the cash transfer cycle.
- Test different design and delivery elements to understand how they affect positive outcomes for women and girls.
- Set up referral systems between cash and violence against women and girls prevention and response programs.
- Communicate clearly to beneficiaries and the community about how cash assistance recipients are selected, what they can expect to receive, and when the assistance will end.
- Develop clear exit strategies after cash assistance ends and ensure that beneficiaries are aware of alternative available economic opportunities.
To fully understand the potential impact of cash transfers on the lives of women and girls, more research is needed on:
- The feasibility and effectiveness of brief, targeted cash and complementary behavioral approaches in emergencies.
- The impact of changes to program design, such as the gender of recipient, size of cash transfer amount, and duration, to make cash transfers more beneficial to women and to increase their safety.
- The potential impacts of cash transfers on sexual exploitation and abuse.
- How the marital status of women (head of household, divorced, widowed, or married) may modify the impact of the cash transfer and how programming can be adjusted to minimize risk and maximize return depending on status.
- Ethical research design for cash transfers that allows for rigorous evaluation of outcomes in humanitarian emergencies.
And finally, to meet these needs in research and practice, donors must:
- Invest in building capacity to mainstream gender, and violence against women and girls response and prevention, into cash assistance.
- Fund referral systems and gender-based violence response services, such as case management, to mitigate and prevent violence against women and girls in cash assistance programming.
- Invest in research to test cash transfers’ impact on women’s experiences of intimate partner violence or other forms of gender-based violence. There is an urgent need for more evidence and learning.
- Ensure increased collaboration between cash practitioners and practitioners working to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls by acknowledging the relevance of cash programming to gender-based violence prevention and the importance of gender sensitivity in cash programming within funding calls.
- Continue to utilize key international moments, such as the reviews of global policy initiatives including the Grand Bargain, the Call to Action on Protection from Gender-Based Violence in Emergencies, the G7 Whistler Declaration on Gender Equality, and the Empowerment of Women and Girls in Humanitarian Action, to define a gender-sensitive approach to cash programming, to review progress, and to make new, evidence-based commitments to tackling gender-based violence, while furthering our collective understanding of cash transfers in emergencies.
- Increase multi-layer and longer-term funding at the early stages of an acute crisis by financing economic programming that includes short-term emergency cash programming as well as longer-term livelihood opportunities for women.
- Deliver on gender-based violence commitments outlined in The Inter-Agency Standing Committee standards in an attempt to prevent gender-based violence and violence against women and girls to address structural inequalities and to promote women’s rights in conflict settings.
For more information on the study methods and results, view the full report: Cash Transfers in Raqqa Governorate, Syria: Changes over Time in Women’s Experiences of Violence & Wellbeing.