Shraddha Shrivastava and Rituparna Sanyal

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing gender inequalities with its disproportionate impact on women. Even before the pandemic, women spent nearly 7 times more time on unpaid work compared to men1, which has surged further now.2 While lockdown restrictions and economic tensions are reported to have increased domestic violence,3 families are resorting to other negative coping mechanisms such as reducing food intake4, pulling children out of school5, child labour6 and child marriage7 – a major brunt of which is borne by women and girls. Women are also more likely to have lost jobs and less likely to rejoin the labour force8. These effects are compounded for rural, poor, marginalised, disabled and elderly women. 

Despite this, women remained largely absent from the Indian government’s COVID-19 policy response. The limited gender-targeted relief measures were not only inadequate9 but also excluded a majority of poor deserving women.10 11 Even the ‘pandemic budget’ failed to recognise the plight of women, as witnessed by the cuts in schemes for women.12 13 

Given this context, strengthening Social Protection (SP) is imperative, as explained in our previous article.14 Well-designed SP can reduce gender gaps in poverty, enhance women’s income and food security, empower them, and provide a lifeline for poor and vulnerable women. However, given that the failure to confront inherent gender norms makes a gender-neutral approach gender-blind, it is important that SP is also gender-responsive in order to build back fairer, not just better. This would entail a transition from the left end of the spectrum shown in Figure 1, towards its right. 

Figure 1: The Gender Integration Continuum

Source: Adapted from UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti (2020)15 

Identifying the gaps 

To formulate truly inclusive Gender-Responsive Social Protection (GRSP), one must first understand the gaps in existing SP. This section focuses on two schemes – one gender-specific (Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY)) and one gender-sensitive (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS)).  

PMMVY is a conditional cash transfer (CCT) of INR 5,000 to a mother for her first live birth, paid in three instalments (see Figure 2). The problem with its design is that it looks at a woman primarily as a mother/caregiver, solely responsible for meeting the conditionalities, and not as an individual in her own right. 16 17 18 19 This reinforces the gender norm that a child’s health and well-being is the mother’s responsibility alone. By mandating Aadhaar cards for both parents20, it penalises single mothers in the process. Further, by restricting it to the first live birth, it also penalises women who face abortions, miscarriages, stillbirths and infant mortalities. PMMVY can be far more inclusive if all mothers, irrespective of age and marital status, are made eligible and it covers at least two births like Odisha’s Mamata scheme21. Furthermore, in times of crises, there should be considerations to increase the entitlement and remove conditionalities. 

There are problems in its implementation too: cumbersome application process, delays in disbursement, slow grievance redressal, etc. due to which coverage routinely falls short of the target.22 23 In 2018-19, only around 14% of all pregnant women received full entitlements while 22% received it partially.24 The government must address these issues at the earliest and make the scheme uncomplicated and more women-centric. 

Figure 2: How to avail PMMVY benefits

Source: Ministry of women and child development25 

MGNREGS, on the other hand, is a rights-based gender-sensitive public works program. The gender-sensitive provisions, some shown in Figure 3, appeal to women, attracting over 50% of their participation year after year26. Yet, the scheme is not gender-responsive as it does not address the socio-cultural barriers to women’s participation or intra-household power dynamics. The key feature of MGNREGS is that it guarantees 100 days of employment to rural households. With COVID-19 induced job scarcity and return of male migrants to their villages, it remains to be seen whether women will be pressured by men not to compete for these jobs. The physically demanding nature of work also discourages many women. One way in which the type of work can be diversified and women can be remunerated for their care work is by expanding the programme to include social sector activities. Additionally, it must be ensured that the gap between design and implementation is minimum.27 Putting women at the forefront in planning, supervision and monitoring while countering gender norms that restrict women’s voice and mobility will not only make MGNREGS more efficient and transparent, but also change societal perceptions about women’s capabilities. 

Figure 3: Gender Sensitive Provisions in MGNREGS

Source: Ministry of Rural Development28

Designing Gender-Responsive Social Protection

Once the limitations of existing SP are acknowledged, they can inform the design and implementation of future GRSP. The foundation of GRSP lies in Gender Mainstreaming, a strategy for making women and men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension of any planned action, in all areas and at all levels29. It critically examines the gendered impact of the criteria (poverty or other forms of vulnerability) which necessitates SP intervention in the first place. Such an inquiry would reveal the major constraints faced by women (shown in Figure 4), which render the outcome of a gender-neutral approach gender-discriminatory. 

Figure 4: Constraints that limit opportunities for women and girls 

Source: Adapted from Kabeer (2008)30

These constraints are further intensified by their varying implications across the lifecycle of a woman31, which need to be accounted for in policy design. Lifecycle risks for girls necessitate addressing their nutritional, educational and health risks, for which CCTs (if designed properly and supported by supply-side institutions) can deliver strong outcomes. For older women, social pensions accompanied by access to affordable healthcare can prove to be most appropriate. For working-age women, reducing the unpaid work burdens of participating women through employment guarantee programs with gender-sensitive interventions like MGNREGS is expected to work best32. As demonstrated by PMMVY, programme targeting and conditionalities must be carefully considered and all components must be reviewed for their gender-sensitivity33. Moreover, approaches that address a single constraint and not the multidimensional deprivations faced by poor women are unlikely to deliver long-term gains. Thus, basic income support must be complemented with simultaneous interventions to empower women thereby improving their prospects for a sustainable exit from poverty.34

A gender-responsive framework builds on a gender-sensitive knowledge base. Responding to gender inequality as a source of risk and vulnerability in the intended SP requires a context-based understanding of the gender dynamics at play. A comprehensive Gender-Sensitive Poverty and Vulnerability Analysis (GSPVA) can generate evidence for the same (summarised in Figure 5).35 Such an analysis would enable policymakers to design the intervention in line with the gendered needs, priorities and perspectives of the population, by defining explicit gender-sensitive programme objectives, targets and indicators, to promote equitable outcomes. 

Figure 5: Components of Gender-Sensitive Poverty and Vulnerability Analysis (GSPVA) 

Source: Adapted from FAO Technical Guide (2018)36

Translating intent into impact 

As demonstrated by MGNREGS, gender-sensitive design does not always deliver gender-equitable results due to improper implementation. Embedding a gender lens at each step of implementation is necessary to acknowledge the impediments like cultural resistance to women’s empowerment, lower literacy rate, digital gender divide, digital and financial illiteracy, that restrict women’s equal access to SP. Implementation should therefore be guided by a conscious effort to avoid exclusion on grounds of any disadvantage. Once participation has been ensured, the next step is to set up gender-friendly delivery mechanisms, institutional arrangements and grievance redressal.37

Any policy intervention must necessarily be complemented by routine evaluation throughout its lifecycle. It is perhaps even more important to ensure that the tools used for evaluation adopt a gender lens to map the intended outcomes with the actual impact. This is where the final component of GSPVA can assist implementers in assessing progress and redressing any shortcomings in programme design38. GSPVA can also provide a baseline to track the impact of the programme on gender-related issues.39 Gender audits can therefore provide important insights for course-correction as well as augment the evidence base for future interventions. Leveraging Self Help Groups for such audits can concurrently improve accountability and empower women collectives40

Finally, an overarching element critical to the success of GRSP is the active participation of women throughout the design, implementation and evaluation stages. Women should be systematically represented within all the institutional bodies in the programme, from steering committees to frontline staff. A commitment to gender balance in program staffing can boost women’s participation in SP programs41. This in turn requires sufficient and sustained financing.42

COVID-19 has presented an opportunity to reset everything. It has brought the multidimensional deprivations faced by women to the fore, thereby stressing the need to revisit SP and evaluate them from a gendered lens. Women and their perspectives must cut across all stages of decision-making rather than merely emerging as an afterthought or being left out altogether43. While making SP gender-responsive requires immediate action, the long-term objective of rendering SP systems gender-transformative by redistributing power relations should be kept in mind. The ultimate aim, therefore, is to make socio-economic structures more equitable in the household and beyond.


  1. OECD Stat. (2021). Employment: Time spent in paid and unpaid work, by sex.
  2. Chauhan, P. (2020) Gendering COVID-19: Impact of the Pandemic on Women’s Burden of Unpaid Work in India. Gend. Issues. 
  3. Rukmini, S. (2020, April 18). Locked down with abusers: India sees surge in domestic violence. Al Jazeera.
  4. Azim Premji University. (2020). COVID-19 Livelihoods Survey. 
  5. Seethalakshmi, S. (2020, August 16). Out-of-school children likely to double in India due to coronavirus. Mint.
  6. Ellis-Peterson, H. and Chaurasia, M. (2020, October 13). Covid-19 prompts ‘enormous rise’ in demand for cheap child labour in India. The Guardian.
  7. BBC News. (2020, September 18). India’s Covid crisis sees rise in child marriage and trafficking.’s%20coronavirus%20lockdown%20has%20had,reports%20the%20BBC’s%20Divya%20Arya.&text=It%20is%20illegal%20for%20girls,18%20to%20marry%20in%20India.
  8. Rukmini, S. (2020, June 11). How covid-19 locked out women from jobs. Mint.
  9. Dhawan, V., Pande, R., Rabinovich, L., et al. (2020, April 24). Getting by on Rice and Salt: Rural Women’s Coping Strategies during India’s Coronavirus Lockdown. Yale Economic Growth Center
  10. Pande, R., Schaner, S., Troyer Moore, C., et al. (2020, April 17). A Majority of India’s Poor Women May Miss COVID-19 PMJDY Cash Transfers. Yale Economic Growth Center
  11. Somanchi, A. (2020, May 22). Covid-19 relief: Are women Jan Dhan accounts the right choice for cash transfers? Ideas for India.
  12. Gupta, S., Ghosh, P. and Bindal, S. (2021, February 17). Budget 2021: No Lessons Learnt From the Disproportionate Impact of the Pandemic on Women? The Wire.
  13. Chadra, J. (2021, February, 1). Budget for Women and Child Development shrinks, poshan slashed by 27%. The Hindu.
  14. Shrivastava, S. and Sanyal, R. (2021, February 1). Making India’s Social Protection Shock Responsive: Lessons from PDS amid COVID-19. Policy Review.
  15. UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti. (2020). Gender-Responsive Age-Sensitive Social Protection: A conceptual framework.
  16. Cookson, T. (2018). Unjust Conditions: Women’s Work and the Hidden Cost of Cash Transfer Programs. California: University of California Press. DOI: 
  17. Poverty Insights. (2009). Cash transfers: To condition or not to condition? Institute of Development Studies.
  18. Plagerson, S. (2024, September 8). Do Social Protection Programmes That Impose Conditionalities on Women Fail to Confront Patriarchy as a Root Cause of Inequality? Social protection and human rights.
  19. Ladhani, S, Sitter, KC. (2020). Conditional cash transfers: A critical review. Dev Policy Rev.; 38: 28– 41.
  20. Ministry of Women and Child Development. (2017). PMMVY Scheme Implementation Guidelines. Government of India.
  21. Department of Women & Child Development and Mission Shakti. (n.d.). Revised MAMATA Guidelines. Government of Odisha.
  22. PTI. (2018, January 15). Less than 2% beneficiaries get aid under maternity scheme. Hindustan Times.
  23. The Wire. (2019, November 29). Latest Data on PMMVY Coverage Shows Only Marginal Improvement in All-India Figures.
  24. Dreze, J. (2019, November 19). The mother of non-issues: on maternity entitlements. The Hindu.
  25. Ministry of Women and Child Development. (2017). PMMVY Scheme Implementation Guidelines. Government of India
  26. Ministry of Rural Development. (2018, December 13). Women Participation Under MGNREGS. PIB.,%2D19%20(as%20on%2007.12.
  27. Chopra, D. (n.d.) Gendering the design and implementation of MGNREGA. UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti.
  28. Ministry of Rural Development. (2013). Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 Operational Guidelines. Government of India.
  29. UN Women. (2000). Gender Mainstreaming.
  30. Kabeer, N. (2008). Mainstreaming gender in social protection for the informal economy. Commonwealth Secretariat.
  31. International Labour Office. (2003). Extension of Social Security.
  32. Antonopoulos, R. (2013). Expanding social protection in developing countries: a gender perspective. Levy Economics Institute at Bard College Working Paper, (757).
  33. FAO. 2018. FAO Technical Guide 1 – Introduction to gender-sensitive social protection programming to combat rural poverty: Why is it important and what does it mean? Rome. 76 pp.
  34. FAO. (2018). Meeting Our Goals.
  35. FAO. 2018. FAO Technical Guide 2 – Integrating gender into the design of cash transfer and public works programmes. Rome. 88 pp.
  36. FAO. 2018. FAO Technical Guide 2 – Integrating gender into the design of cash transfer and public works programmes. Rome. 88 pp.
  37. Hidrobo, M., Kumar, N., Palermo, T., & Pe, A. (2020). Why gender-sensitive social protection is critical to the COVID-19 response in low- and middle-income countries.
  38. FAO. 2018. FAO Technical Guide 2 – Integrating gender into the design of cash transfer and public works programmes. Rome. 88 pp.
  39. FAO. (2018). Meeting Our Goals.
  40. The Quantum Hub. (2020). Women’s Economic Empowerment in India.
  41. FAO. 2018. FAO Technical Guide 3 – Integrating gender into implementation and monitoring and evaluation of cash transfer and public works programmes. Rome. 48 pp.
  42. Gulati, N. (2021). Budget 2021-22: A gender lens. Ideas For India.
  43. Holmes, R., & Jones, N. (2013). Gender and social protection in the developing world: beyond mothers and safety nets. Zed Books Ltd.

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.

The wide-ranging vulnerability induced by the current pandemic has heightened global interest in shock-responsive social protection (SRSP), i.e. adapting social protection (SP) for addressing the impacts of large-scale natural disasters, economic shocks, pandemics and political crises. Figure 1 shows the common SRSP strategies which policymakers can consider for addressing covariate shocks. 

Figure 1. Adapting social protection systems for crises

Until recently, India’s SP system was largely limited to the formal sector. While there is still a considerable degree of fragmentation and multiple federal schemes operate in silos, there is a growing policy recognition for consolidation and convergence backed by integrated systems.1 The last 15 years witnessed a growth in rights-based entitlements and systemic reforms to build a more inclusive system.2 These encompass the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) program, Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), Public Distribution System (PDS), National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and National Social Assistance Program (NSAP). These programs show a greater degree of institutionalization in terms of legal and/or policy backing, benefit design and implementation processes, resulting in improved coverage. 

The COVID-19 crisis has seen unique innovations involving piggybacking on India’s most extensive safety net, the PDS, for shock response, reiterating its relevance for SRSP. For instance, the Government of Bihar piggybacked on the PDS (although with challenges and swift course corrections)3 to provide a one-off transfer of Rs.1000 to ration-card holders during the COVID-19 crisis. This experience needs to be systematically documented, as it will play a crucial role in informing future preparedness actions. Similarly, Uttar Pradesh (UP)4 and Odisha5 piggybacked on the extensive network of fair price shops (FPS) to distribute food grains (in lieu of in-school cooked meals) to beneficiaries of MDM, while Delhi6 and Kerala7 used it to distribute ‘essential item kits’. Leveraging existing delivery systems helped save crucial time and reduce errors in distribution.

PDS also demonstrated flexibility by expanding vertically (topping up entitlements) and horizontally (increasing coverage). Entitlements for over 80 crore ration-card holders were doubled8 and eligibility was relaxed to include non-ration card holders 9 such as migrant workers10 and some families who are above the poverty line11. On March 26th, the government announced the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) for the period of April to June, further extended till November 2020, for providing free ration (5 kg of rice/wheat and 1 kg of pulses), in addition to the pre-existing entitlements of PDS beneficiaries12. Several states announced their own relief packages, which supplemented this quantity of ration and/or expanded the basket of items. 13,14 Under the Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, free rations were extended to migrants from May till August. The pandemic and the consequent exodus of migrants also hastened the speed of ensuring inter-state portability of ration cards through the ‘One Nation-One Ration Card’ (ONORC) approach, though challenges persist. 

Although the PDS played a critical role in alleviating the vulnerability induced by the pandemic, several inadequacies of the system were exposed as well. The challenges posed by the PDS need to be addressed in order to respond better to future crises. The most fundamental criticism of the current PDS regime is the exclusion of eligible beneficiaries. This exclusion is layered and hierarchical, shown in Figure 2. The use of outdated 2011 population census figures to determine the extent of the coverage of the scheme has excluded more than 100 million people from the system.15 The second layer of exclusion emanates from the mandate of linking Aadhaar with ration cards.16 Both these shortcomings represent the plight of vulnerable non-ration card holders who suffer disproportionately because of the difficulty in identifying them for delivering immediate relief. As the ONORC does not address the previous two layers of exclusion, it is plagued by their associated drawbacks too. 

Figure 2. The PDS Exclusion Hierarchy: Introducing ONORC without accompanying measures for addressing the deeper issues of large-scale exclusion is merely touching the tip of the iceberg 

Another welfare program that can learn from the PDS and respond better to future shocks is NREGS, which came to the rescue of many distressed workers in the wake of the widespread job losses induced by the current pandemic. 17  While this surge in demand resulted in significant expansion of the program, spatial mapping of the newly issued job cards across rural districts with their population shares of outmigration and poverty revealed substantial unmet demand. 18 At the same time, the lack of a national urban employment guarantee (UEG) scheme left the urban poor unprotec#srsp18ted. The long overdue UEG is finally under consideration19, and its timely implementation will bring urban informal workers within the ambit of wider crisis management. However, the success of both NREGS and UEG depends on the ability of the states to generate sufficient employment opportunities corresponding to the surging demand. Mobilizing local authorities for identifying such opportunities is a prerequisite to yield tangible results, especially during crises. Another important issue is that of inadequate compensation. NREGS wages are lower than the minimum wage for agriculture in many states.20 Times of crisis unquestionably demand a top-up over the guaranteed wage. The recent guidelines on streamlining NREGS wage payments21 is a welcome move, however, the government must still consider switching to cash payment during difficult times at least in remote areas. NREGS therefore presents a case for both horizontal and vertical expansion.

In conclusion, the detrimental consequences of delayed SP response22 witnessed during the current pandemic only strengthens the case for instituting an emergency response framework across these schemes to fast-track assistance deployment when it is needed the most. The starting point for making SP shock-responsive is to map existing SP systems in terms of their coverage, adequacy and comprehensiveness: to understand the reach of routine SP systems, their capacity to deliver relief adequately and the range of risks covered. An efficient way to do this is to transition from multiple independent program databases to an Integrated Social Protection Information System. Additionally, the shortcomings of existing systems that hinder effective coverage during crises demonstrate that successful adaptation of such systems for emergency response requires them to be resilient in the first place. Given that the case for short-term universalization of SP during a crisis rests on fiscal considerations and political will, ensuring minimum exclusion errors in identifying beneficiaries becomes the most effective strategy for increasing the resilience of existing SP systems and improving the coverage of SRSP systems. Flexible delivery mechanisms form yet another critical element of a resilient SP system. 

Adapting SP for accommodating the expanded pool of vulnerable population prompts the need for a National Social Registry backed by comprehensive and dynamic socio-economic data in order to cater to those outside the purview of routine SP (urban poor, migrants). Moreover, vulnerability and needs assessments23 can be leveraged to prioritise regions and households for better risk preparedness and response24. Expanding routine coverage in areas frequently affected by shocks along with appropriate monitoring and evaluation can serve as ideal pilot studies for iterative, evidence-based design tweaks. 

SRSP contingency framework must also be incorporated within the ambit of the formal policy, so that readily deployable Standard Operating Procedures are in place in times of need25. This includes an assessment of the fiscal space for shock response in terms of assessing alternative sources and channels of contingency financing26. A final ingredient of successful SRSP systems relates to a context driven approach. Decentralized decision-making enables policy response to be based on local context, which is extremely relevant for crisis management. Hence, states and their local governments need to be empowered, especially financially, and be involved in formulating SRSP as they know the ground realities and local vulnerabilities most thoroughly. 

The current context of COVID-19 has and will throw up many challenges, particularly by amplifying already existing inequalities. In these times, developing strong SRSP systems is paramount to mitigate such adverse impacts. 


1. The World Bank. (2019, February 20). Schemes to Systems: The Future of Social Protection in India.

2. Dreze, J. & Khera, R. (2017). Recent Social Security Initiatives in India. World Development, 98, 555-572.

3. Government of Bihar. (2020, May 8). Directions regarding monitoring of cash transfer Rs 1000 distribution under PDS ration card linking related issues. 

4. Bajpai, N. (2020, May 30). UP govt to disburse ration, food security allowance to school children.The New Indian Express.

5. Orissa Post. (2020, March 21). Odisha govt to provide MDM to students through PDS.

6. The Hindu. (2020, June 4). Not discriminating between ration and non-ration cardholders, govt. tells HC.

7. Joseph, A. T. (2020, April 6). How Kerala is feeding its 3.48 crore residents, migrants amid the COVID-19 lockdown. The Caravan.

8. Government of India. (2020, March 20). DO Letter F. No. l-212020 Desk (MDM).

9. Government of India. (2020, March 30). PRADHAN MANTRI GARIB KALVAN ANNA YOJANA – Additional allocation of foodgrains to all the beneficiaries covered under Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) free of cost for a period of three months.

10. Government of India. (2020, May 15). Allocation of foodgrain to the migrants @ 5 kg per person per month for two months free of cost as part of Economic measures (Atma Nirbhar Bharat).

11. ANI. (2020, April 9). Gujarat to provide free ration to 60 lakh families amid COVID-19 lockdown. Business Standard. 

12. Ministry of Finance. (2020, March 26). Finance Minister announces Rs 1.70 Lakh Crore relief package under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana for the poor to help them fight the battle against Corona Virus.

13. Telangana Today. (2020, March 22). Telangana Lockdown: 12 kg free rice per person, Rs 1,500 per family to be supplied for each white ration card.

14. Angad, A. (2020, May 15). Non-PDS card holders to foodgrains: Jharkhand fears problems in migrant aid. The Indian Express.

15. IndiaSpend. (2020, April 16). More than 100mn excluded from PDS as govt uses outdated Census 2011 data.


17. Bhalotia, S., Dhingra, S. & Kondirolli, F. (2020). City of Dreams no More: The Impact of Covid-19 on Urban Workers in India. Centre for Economic Performance, Paper No. 008.

18. Narayan, S., Oldiges, C. & Saha, S. (2020, December 1). Does workfare work? MNREGA during Covid-19. Ideas for India.

19. Bloomberg. (2020, September 12). India plans to extend rural jobs guarantee scheme to cities, to address urban unemployment. Financial Express.

20. Aggarwal, A. & Paikra, V. (2020, October 5). Why are MNREGA wages so low? Ideas for India.

21. Department of Rural Development & National Informatics Centre. (2019, December). Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) on Streamlining MGNREGA Wage Payments.

22. Ghosh, J. (2020). A critique of the Indian government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Industrial and Business Economics, 47, 519–530.

23. O’Brien, C., Holmes R. and Scott, Z., with Barca, V. (2018) ‘Shock-Responsive Social Protection Systems Toolkit—Appraising the use of social protection in addressing largescale shocks’, Oxford Policy Management, Oxford, UK. 

24. Acharya, R. & Porwal, A. (2020). A vulnerability index for the management of and response to the COVID-19 epidemic in India: an ecological study. The Lancet Global Health, 8(9), 1142-1151. 

25. UNICEF. (2019, December). Programme Guidance: Strengthening Shock Responsive Social Protection Systems. 

26. O’Brien, C., Holmes R. and Scott, Z., with Barca, V. (2018) ‘Shock-Responsive Social Protection Systems Toolkit—Appraising the use of social protection in addressing largescale shocks’, Oxford Policy Management, Oxford, UK. 

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.