Brazil has an anti-poverty program that is catching on in Latin America — it's a conditional cash-transfer program that gives families money for sending kids to school and to regular doctor visits. Bolsa Familia, or "Family Grant," shells out the equivalent of about $35 to $70 every month to a quarter of the country's population.
But the cash doesn't go to just anyone — it's mostly given to women, according to a report from The Atlantic.
"The state tends to believe women are more reliable than men," said Sérgio Fausto, a political scientist and executive director of the Instituto Fernando Henrique Cardoso think tank in Sao Paulo, in The Atlantic report.
This mirrors the practice of micro credit in many countries, in which women are primarily given the loans with the belief that mothers are more likely to use the cash for children and family needs than men are — especially in Brazil, where alcoholism is a persistent problem of poverty.
Ten years after the program began, researchers find that Bolsa Familia not only helps to alleviate poverty, it also empowers women and is changing gender roles.
Maria da Paz, a mother of two girls from Rocinha, Brazil, told The Guardian that the extra cash allowed her to leave her abusive partner. "I substituted my husband for Bolsa Familia," she said. "Bolsa Familia has helped women. Before it started, women could only be frantic about feeding their kids but now, with Bolsa Familia, we are less dependent on men."
This is one of the aims of the program, one of the directors told The Guardian.
"That's part of the strategy. It's then up to them to decide how to spend the money," said social development minister Tereza Campello. "Our research shows that the money empowers women. In many cases, it's their only source of income, so it means they are less dependent on their husbands, more likely to share in decision-making, and have higher self-esteem. Some women who were forced to put up with husbands who beat them now feel liberated enough to think of divorce. The money also gives women more say in whether to buy and use contraceptives."
Data also indicate that the program helps families by requiring mothers-to-be to attend prenatal doctor visits and helps pay for educational and training courses for women.
Criticisms of the program are that it could become a permanent dependency instead of a temporary "boost," and that it could be subject to fraud, according to The Economist. It's hard to know if local officials report accurate information on who is eligible — some municipalities claim that 100 percent of their students attend school 100 percent of the time. Still, the report finds that most of the money ends up in the right hands — 70 percent goes to the poorest 20 percent of families, according to the World Bank.
"For a relatively modest outlay (0.8 percent of GDP), Brazil is getting a good return," reports the Economist. "If only the same could be said of the rest of what the government spends."