Engendering Social Welfare Rights

Shanelle van der Berg - 14th March 2013

Recipients of social welfare must routinely face the fact that many in society regard them as “scroungers” who are undeserving of the support they receive. Welfare recipients are thus compelled to live with the stigma attached to the receipt of social support in addition to the severe problems and stigma that poverty holds in the first place. The problem is compounded for female welfare recipients when the granting of social welfare benefits, and especially cash grants, are made conditional upon women performing certain duties linked to the grants.

In a recent seminar delivered at the Socio Economic Rights and Administrative Justice research group at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, Professor Sandra Fredman of Oxford University sought to develop an evaluative framework through which social welfare rights could be viewed from a gendered perspective. While not attempting to prescribe what precise social welfare system would be ideal or advocating the abrogation of the cash grant, Fredman acknowledged that leaving the current system of incentive language coupled with punitive measures unexamined may reinforce gender stereotypes and serve to further feminise socio-economic burdens.

A gendered evaluative framework would, firstly, entail a redistributive dimension which recognises that addressing poverty generally cannot be equated with addressing gender disadvantage specifically. There is a need to move beyond income poverty in order to acknowledge that uneven power distribution within families can result in “hidden poverty”. Moreover, we should acknowledge that discrimination within property law, the law of succession and customary law – coupled with discrimination that hampers women’s education – is impeding redistributive measures aimed at redressing gender disadvantage. Fredman highlighted the need for a recognition dimension within which awareness of the stigma attached to both poverty and welfare could be fostered. Intrusive mechanisms such as means-testing can serve to exacerbate the stigma attached to receiving welfare benefits while simultaneously strengthening male and female stereotypes. A shift from a perception of welfare as charity to welfare as a right is required. A transformational dimension could serve to address gendered structures and stereotypes rather than merely reflecting them. Finally, a participative dimension could promote the perception of women as agents rather than as passive recipients of benefits while acknowledging the impact that intersectionality of disadvantage can exercise on the complex myriad of issues at stake.

While not purporting to be the panacea for all the problems associated with poverty and social welfare, Fredman’s four-dimensional framework could serve as a quintessential paradigm from which to re-think the way we approach the gendered nuances of social welfare rights.

Shanelle van der Berg is a doctoral candidate and member of the Socio Economic Rights and Administrative Justice research group at Faculty of Law, Stellenbosch University, South Africa. 

A copy of Professor Fredman’s seminar slides can be found here.

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