Interrogating the evidence: The potential for social safety nets to reduce childhood violence

By Amber Peterman (UNICEF’s Office of Research – Innocenti) and Anastasia (Naomi) Neijhoft (UNICEF Mozambique)

Non-contributory social safety nets (SSNs), including cash and in-kind transfers, public works and vouchers or fee waivers, are typically designed to provide regular and predicable support to poor populations and have become a popular policy tool to address poverty, vulnerability and inequality. There are numerous arguments in favor of SSNs, including their documented impacts across a range of poverty and wellbeing outcomes and their ability to be cost effectively implemented at scale. As of 2015, SSN programming in over 130 low- and middle-income countries reached 1.9 billion people.

What about childhood violence?

SSNs primarily address income poverty, yet since poverty has been shown to be associated with childhood experiences of violence, it is not surprising that stakeholders have connected the dots and wondered: Could investments in SSN programming, including cash transfers, reduce (or prevent) violence against children? The proposition is certainly promising.

To address this question, in a new study in Health Policy and Planning, we review empirical evidence from SSN evaluations in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). We review impacts of SSN programming on emotional, physical and sexual violence experienced by children aged 0-17 years. We catalogue over 14 rigorous evaluations (among these, 11 are completed). Across 57 unique impacts on childhood violence analyzed across studies, approximately 20% represent statistically significant protective impacts, while there were no statistically significant negative impacts found. Although promising, we conclude that much more (and better) research is needed before we can confidently claim that SSNs are a promising instrument to reduce childhood violence in diverse LMIC settings.

A deeper dive

Violence experienced by children is multi-faceted. Unsurprisingly, we find results vary by region, violence type and demographic studied. We find relatively stronger evidence for impacts on sexual violence (of adolescent females), including sexual exploitation, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). We found weaker evidence for other childhood violence types such as violent discipline or peer bullying, primarily measured in Latin America.

However, our conclusions are limited by gaps in the evidence. For example, we found very few studies looking at homicide, teen dating violence or self-harm, and types of childhood violence measured varied by region. Moreover, as studies largely measure incidence or prevalence, we are unable to tell if SSNs have potential to reduce severity and frequency of childhood violence. Further, the majority of studies focused on typologies of cash transfers, thereby limiting our understanding of impacts of other SSNs, including public works, which some have hypothesized to have greater risk for adverse effects on child protection outcomes. Most studies were conducted in Latin America and SSA, only one was conducted in the Middle East and there were no completed studies from Asia. Importantly, very few studies were designed to focus on childhood violence or unpack mechanisms—which will be essential going forward to understand behavioral underpinnings responsible for impacts.

What is next for research and policy?

The study offers some guidance for future research and for policy makers and program implementers. We develop a framework linking SSNs and childhood violence based both on the studies reviewed as well as the broader literature. The framework can guide both program theory as well as data collection. With more and better research, we may improve our understanding of the relative contribution of economic factors—including poverty-related stress, or caregiver time use and parenting behaviors, versus mechanisms such increases in child schooling or problem and risk behaviors—in delivering potential impacts. Qualitative and mixed methods work will be essential going forward to fully understand dynamics around mechanisms and pathways in diverse settings, with the ability to capture nuance lost in quantitative impact analysis.

The review is particularly timely as childhood violence is squarely on the policy agenda. New studies have highlighted the pervasive nature of violence, affecting an estimated 1 billion children annually. Commitment 16.2 under the Sustainable Development Goals aims to reduce this number. Recent initiatives have proposed economic-based interventions as strategies to reduce violence against children. For example, as one of seven recommended strategies, INSPIRE focuses on three types of income and economic strengthening programs: cash transfers, micro-credit and group savings/loan programs (the latter two combined with gender norms training). Our evidence suggests that although there are promising case studies reflecting this recommendation, there is a long way to go to understand if the “average” SSN has potential to reduce childhood violence (and if so, which program design and implementation features, which types of violence and among which populations). Importantly, SSNs are never (and need not be) designed with childhood violence as a primary objective. Therefore, they should not be relied on to reduce the interrelated and broad set of risks for childhood violence. However, since they have demonstrated potential to reduce some of these risks at the margin for large segments of the population, it is helpful to think of a range of implementation typologies,  from simple messaging, to layered programming, to integrating social protection and child protection systems, so as to maximize potential while meeting primary poverty and economic objectives.

Much can be learned from investments of future research on this topic and we hope this review will spur additional reflection and innovation on linking poverty, SSNs and violence experienced by children, youth and adults alike.

Full citation: Peterman A, Neijoft A, Cook S and TM Palermo (2017). Understanding the linkages between social safety nets and childhood violence: a review of the evidence from low- and middle-income countries. Health Policy and Planning: 1-23.

This work was funded through support of the Oak Foundation via the Network for European Foundations facilitated by the Know Violence in Childhood Initiative. DFID and Sida provided salary support for Peterman and Palermo respectively. The work benefited from a large number of comments and helpful discussions, primarily during and after an Expert Roundtable on the topic convened by the UNICEF Office of Research—Innocenti and the Know Violence in Childhood Initiative.

Image credit: © UNICEF/UNI88959/Ramoneda: Port-au-Prince, Haiti 2010