The Politics of Empowerment in Buenos Aires

philips - argentina - poster
A poster describing how to enroll in AUH.

My work is on a social program in Argentina called, Asignación Universal por Hijo para la Protección Social (AUH), a conditional cash transfer (CCT) implemented by presidential decree in late 2009. Under the program, the government uses a portion of income tax and sales tax to provide monthly transfers to poor families that are unemployed, informally employed, or who do domestic work and make less than a livable wage. Families receive $160 pesos (roughly $40 USD) per child ages 0-18, for up to five children. The money is given directly to the mother each month and is received under the condition that the family verifies children’s school attendance and medical checkups. It is designed to incentivize education for the poor population and break the intergenerational cycle of poverty via human capital accumulation.

In addition to drastic inequality and high rates of poverty, Argentina has a high rate of domestic violence. My work is focusing on whether transferring the money directly to mothers is empowering to women by giving them more financial control, helping them leave abusive homes, etc. or limits female agency by reenforcing traditional gender roles and providing a point of contention between a husband and wife regarding household finances. If there are negative consequences associated with the distribution system of the grant, a change in the structure of the policy could reduce domestic violence and save the lives of women. If the current system empowers women, there could be good reason to continue and expand the program. It could also incentivize collaborative work on finding additional funding sources. My original flight to Argentina was cancelled at the last minute, so I arrived to Buenos Aires feeling a little frantic and behind schedule. As soon as my plane touched down at  the Ezeiza airport, I hit the ground running. I arrived with a list of 15 contacts I had been in touch with by email over the last several months, but nearly a whole week into my trip, I’ve only visited with two of my original contacts. And no, this is not me slacking. These two original contacts each suggested an additional five or six of their friends who work for various local organizations or have done related research who I should get in touch with, who have each led to another three interviews, and my time here has become a never-ending cycle of delving further and further into this project. This is a good problem to have, particularly since I have such a short amount of time here and because there is so much to learn. This process has also been encouraging and has given me confidence that I’m working on a current topic that is important to so many people, organizations, and researchers here.

There are all kinds of critiques of CCT programs, both AUH, and other CCTs throughout Latin America: they reduce work incentives, people have children only so that they can receive the grant money, the men take all the money and use it to gamble or buy alcohol, etc., but these views generally seem to come from the uninformed segment of the population. Those who work with recipients say there is no basis for these claims; that having children costs substantially more than $40 per month, so such arguments are illogical; that if these statements were true, everyone on the streets would be a stumbling alcoholic. Certainly there are cases where the funds are misused, but the organizations who are on the ground working with the recipients see that these cases are exceptions, not the rule.

I spent all day yesterday at a local ANSES office (the organization that collects verification information and distributes funds to recipient families), interviewing the director of a local ANSES branch, the director of the Asignación programs at ANSES, as well as several women who receive the grant. Two of the three recipient women I spoke with  were separated from their husbands, the third was still with her partner but they had never been married. One woman told me she had spent years living in an abusive relationship and how she was able to leave these intolerable conditions and start a new and better life for herself and for her children because of the extra help of the Asignación, that she would not have been able to afford basic things like food and school supplies for her children without the help of the program. Hearing these kinds of stories is making these kinds of problems and the program become so real and so tangible. I will continue working with these women in the next few weeks to learn about their experiences.

This week I also got a lead on a government organization that launched a 2009-2010 campaign to increase awareness of domestic violence. This could explain much of the increase in domestic violence-related reports in recent years. Perhaps between increased awareness and increased access to assistance programs, more women are finding themselves empowered to break away from abusive relationships. There also appears to be a strong link between Argentina’s political and economic history and 1) the current conditions, including inequality, 2) the need for social programs, 3) the lived experience of women here, and the process of receiving the grant. I definitely have a long way to go and many more people to talk to, but I feel like my project is starting to take shape, and I’m thankful that my contacts have all been helpful in guiding me along the way.

Posted by Kristi Philips – MA Candidate at CLACS at NYU

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