By Marvi Memon
Achieving gender equality and empowering women to be able to actively participate in economic life is not only their basic entitlement but also the prime responsibility of the state. Women empowerment needs to be seen as both the objective and part of the solution to the broader challenges faced today. Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) — the largest social safety net in the South Asian region — is unique in the sense that it not only targets womenfolk by disbursing cash grants to strengthen them economically but also ensures the much-needed support system for their social uplift. It specifically aims to empower women, providing them with dignity and a meaning to their lives. The BISP Impact Evaluation Report 2016 presents the findings from the quantitative and qualitative research conducted for the third round of the impact evaluation of the BISP. The value of the BISP transfer has steadily increased over the life cycle of the programme. Beneficiaries are expected to receive quarterly payments. Furthermore, it is useful to consider that the direct beneficiary of the BISP cash transfer are female family heads rather than at the household as a whole. Ten per cent of the BISP beneficiary households had more than one BISP beneficiary, with an average of 1.11 beneficiaries living per household.
One of the preconditions to becoming a BISP beneficiary is that a woman must be in possession of a valid Computerised National Identity Card, to ensure political participation of women. The BISP Impact Evaluation Survey 2016 demonstrates that the literacy level among beneficiary women is extremely low, being just 9% at the national level, whilst just 8% have completed primary school. The women voting impact estimates surveyed under the BISP impact evaluation survey of 2016 clearly illustrate that BISP has had a positive and statistically significant impact on the proportion of women reporting that they would always vote, whether in a local or national election. In 2011 just 40% of women in beneficiary households reported that they were always likely to vote in a local or national election. By the last round of the evaluation in 2016, this proportion had increased to 70%, with just 11% saying that they will not vote.
Also, BISP has recently created 55,000 Beneficiary Committees in 32 districts to provide a forum for discussing issues such as nutrition, child health, education, family planning and adult literacy, as well as providing a platform for mobilising beneficiary women. The feedback of women of BISP Beneficiary Committees (BBCs) help design projects, which can address their issues related to education, health and finances etc. The BISP transfer has had an impact on the nutrition outcomes of girls with a preference for girls’ nutrition when a transfer is targeted at a female beneficiary in the household.
Reports confirm that a vast majority of women beneficiaries across Pakistan retain the control on how to use BISP cash, with 76% of female beneficiaries saying that they are the ones who decide how the transfer is spent. The qualitative research noted that BISP has over time brought a change in the status of women and their decision-making powers in the household. Gradually BISP is perceived by husbands and sons as support which is received through women, and should therefore be controlled by the beneficiary. In 38 out of 48 in-depth interviews, both male and female respondents said that it should be the beneficiary herself that should control cash received from BISP and decide how it would be used, indicating that female beneficiaries now play a more active role in decision-making within the household including money management. This finding was most pronounced in K-P, followed by Punjab. The qualitative research suggests that the involvement in decision-making has been accompanied by an increase in the status of women both in the household, but also in the community. Overall 96% of beneficiaries reported that they were very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their experience in how they collected the cash transfer. The findings are consistent across the provinces with beneficiaries reporting high levels of satisfaction across each of the four provinces with dissatisfaction ratio to be reported as only 7% in Punjab, 4% in Sindh, 1% in KP, 1% in Balochistan, thus overall only 4% in Pakistan. The qualitative research indicates that this was perceived as a major benefit of the BISP Debit Card mechanism, with the majority of women in both IDIs and FGDs saying that they preferred ATMs more because anyone could collect the money as was convenient at the time. The same survey suggests that BISP has had a positive and statistically significant effect on the ability of women to travel alone to various locales in the community. Although the level of financial savings amongst beneficiary households remains overall low, however, this has increased over the period 2011-2016, with just 9% of beneficiary households having any form of savings in 2011 to 13% in 2016. As a result of the programme, the proportion of women that are engaged in unpaid family labour has fallen, the qualitative research suggests that some women may be engaging in some forms of self-employment like purchase of sewing machines from the cash grant. BISP Impact Evaluation Report (2016) confirms that BISP has had a statistically significant contribution on decreasing the rate of dependence on casual labour as main income source, falling over the period from 51% of beneficiary households in 2011 to 45% of beneficiary households in 2016.
There is strong evidence that the BISP cash transfer has increased the welfare of beneficiary households at least in terms of increasing their consumption expenditure possibilities, enhancing the quality of their lifestyles. The Impact Evaluation Report of 2016 confirms that the contribution of BISP towards women beneficiaries is beyond financial assistance, empowering them to exercise their political, social and financial rights. In particular, the 2016 evaluation report notes for the first time that BISP has supported an increase in savings and improvements in material welfare. The report tells a consistent story of the slowly building impact which is triggering a change in the livelihood strategies of the beneficiary households and how the interventions of BISP enable the womenfolk to support their families on equal footings.