In your own way

Can all women graduate? The challenges of graduation programmes

Sarabe Chan*  


The graduation model has been hailed as one of the most comprehensive approaches to lifting even the most destitute households out of extreme poverty (Hashemi & Umaira, 2011). In this paper, I attempt to offer a more nuanced perspective on the difficulties that female programme participants may face.

The graduation model was pioneered in 2002 when BRAC Bangladesh developed the 18-month “Challenging the Frontiers of Poverty Reduction – Targeting the Ultra Poor” programme (CFPR/TUP).  

It supports women of extremely poor households through providing an intensive support package that includes cash transfers, asset transfers, saving and credit facilities, training and coaching to improve life skills, build capacity and strengthen livelihood conditions (Hashemi & Umaira, 2011). Upon completion of the programme, participants are expected to ‘graduate’ out of extreme poverty and progress into sustainable livelihoods.

Extensive studies display the promising results of CFPR/TUP, having achieved 95% of graduation rate and 92% of increased household incomes among participants (Hashemi & de Montesquiou, 2011). Among the many benefits, women’s empowerment is also considered a strong element of the programme – where the programme claims to increase their participation in decision making about investments and use of household assets. When compared to women in the control group, one of the graduation programmes found that seven times as many participants answered that they influenced investment decisions within their households (Kenward, Blackie & Islam, 2012). The success of CFPR/TUP has led to replications of the programme in ten other countries, such as Pakistan, India, Rwanda, Ethiopia, etc. (Hashemi & de Montesquiou, 2011).

Despite the apparent success in poverty reduction and women’s empowerment, I argue that the graduation model also presents some critical challenges for women and children and could potentially share similar problems to those experienced by some female clients of microfinance programmes. Using several graduation programmes as case studies and Naila Kabeer’s good practices of gender-sensitive social protection as a framework, this paper argues that only certain types of women, namely those with fewer children and an entrepreneurial disposition, are most likely to benefit.

Graduation Model: Concept and Operation

Arguably, the ‘graduation’ concept originated from the realisation that microfinance does not cater to the poorest who are usually chronically food insecure and vulnerable, and that merely providing social safety nets is unlikely to achieve a transformative impact on the poor’s livelihoods (Hashemi & Umaira, 2011). A holistic package of support is necessary to address the multi-dimensionality of poverty, and provide a gateway for ultra-poor women to ‘graduate’ from extreme poverty, namely, to achieve sustainable self-reliance.

There is a wide variety of graduation programmes depending on the country context, but in principle the programmes basically share a common logic and basic design components (Devereux & Sabates-Wheeler, 2015). They are underpinned by the theory that poor households can achieve sustainable livelihoods through providing them a combination of cash transfer, asset transfer, savings and credit, training and coaching over a period of 18 to 24 months. Through gaining training and coaching support from programme staff, beneficiaries are encouraged to develop their own micro enterprise that would determine their pathway towards graduation. This coaching support is often described as a unique element of the graduation programmes (Devereux & Sabates-Wheeler, 2015).

According to Devereux and Sabates-Wheeler, there are two types of graduation: ‘threshold’ and ‘sustainable’ graduation (2015). The former refers to ‘graduation from the programme’, which is when participants have fulfilled the administrative requirements of the programme, such as having completed the pre-determined time period which leaves them no longer eligible to receive support. The latter is when beneficiaries have achieved sustainable livelihoods and built enough resilience to not fall back to extreme poverty even without programme support (Devereux & Sabates-Wheeler, 2015). For the purpose of this paper, ‘graduation’ will be referred to the former concept.

Taking CFPR/TUP as an example to explain the concept and operation of graduation, it is a multi-dimensional poverty reduction programme implemented by BRAC Bangladesh through specific income generating activities and strengthened socio-political assets of the poor. The programme first identifies ultra-poor households through participatory wealth ranking with the village community, with the aim of targeting households that satisfy at least two of the following inclusion requirements: dependence upon female domestic work or begging, owning less than 0.01 hector of land, no active male members in the household and where school-aged children have to take up paid work (Ahmed, 2006). An appropriate income-generating activity is then identified for the participant, followed by providing intensive training and skill development. Simultaneously, the participant receives asset and cash transfers for short-term income support and also to complement the entrepreneurial activity of their choice. The participant also receives healthcare, nutrition education and various types of training. Additionally, the social development component of CFPR/TUP offers counselling, confidence building and motivation to beneficiaries (Ahmed, 2006). Participants ‘graduate’ upon meeting a majority of indicators including discontinuing chronic food insecurity, having three sources of income, having a roof made of tin, etc. (Hashemi & Umaira, 2011).

As targeted participants are ultra-poor women, this paper focuses on the gender-sensitive elements of graduation programmes. In the following sections, I will first conceptualise the definition of women’s empowerment and gender sensitivity.

Women’s Empowerment and Gender-Sensitive Social Protection

Women’s Empowerment

In the past thirty years, gender issues have received increased attention in the development field, and the term ‘women’s empowerment’ has been used many times in academic and practical sense. Kabeer’s definition of women’s empowerment is perhaps one of the most representative. She described the concept as “the expansion in women’s ability to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously denied to them” (1999:437). According to her, there are three interrelated and indivisible dimensions, which are fundamental to understanding the concept of strategic life choices. The first is resources, which are material, human and social resources that form the conditions under which choices are made. The second is agency, referring to the process through which choices are made. Lastly, achievements are the outcomes of the choice that are reflected in levels of wellbeing (Kabeer, 1999). In this paper I use these dimensions to analyse the success of graduation model in empowering women that are entrepreneurial and bear less domestic responsibilities.

Gender-sensitive Social Protection

The discussion of social protection with a gender lens has been touched upon by Molyneux’s (2006) critique of conditional cash transfers. She argued that the conditions restrain women to their traditional roles as mothers, disregarding their capacity as programme recipients and taking for granted that they will fully oblige to the programme design.

The graduation programmes aim to encourage and empower women to establish their livelihoods and ‘graduate’ from extreme poverty. In order to successfully help them accomplish this objective, graduation programmes must be gender-sensitive. The framework of this paper is based on Kabeer’s (2008) recommendations of good practices that should be learned in order to embrace gender-sensitive social protection policy. She makes suggestions to address women’s disadvantages, including the need to: tackle cultural restrictions on women’s ability through the design of work opportunities close to home, design measures to reduce women’s domestic workloads, incorporate various forms of care work in the definition of ‘work’, provide childcare support to working women, and supply skills and training in order to enhance women’s employability (Kabeer, 2008). In the following section, I argue that although components of graduation programmes are aligned with several ‘good practises’ as proposed by Kabeer, it is restricted merely to certain types of women and may present challenges to women and children.

Graduation Programmes and Women’s Empowerment

This section presents two components of which the graduation programmes can empower women by taking into account gender sensitivity.

Skills and training to enhance women’s employability

Graduation programmes allow women to choose an enterprise pathway according to their interests and capabilities (Hashemi & Umaira, 2011), which aligns with Kabeer’s definition of ‘women’s empowerment’ as being able to make strategic choices (1999). By following the three aforementioned interrelated dimensions of understanding strategic life choices, resources are provided by the programmes including material (cash stipends, asset transfer), human (programme staff as mentors and trainers) and social resources (support groups). Regarding agency, the graduation model envisions a process of 18 to 24 months to enhance the individual’s capabilities to achieve sustainable livelihoods, allowing them the choice to select the type of livelihoods they would like to engage in. Lastly, the outcome of their choices is reflected in the levels of well-being. This also corresponds to one of Kabeer’s suggestions for gender-sensitive social protection to supply skills and training to enhance women’s employability (2008). Indeed, through training and improved livelihoods, increased confidence among participants is often included as one of the programme impacts. For example, some reports highlighted that CFPR/TUP has made women more confident, transforming them from being a dependent member of the household into an income earner (Hashemi & Umaira, 2011). In the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, their graduation approaches have not only reduced women’s income poverty, but they have also reduced their social marginalisation. It was found that participants accredited their success to the acquisition of voice and agency, and also to the training and cash transfers that they have received (Mcllvaine, K. et al, 2015).

Work Opportunities Close to Home

Since the graduation model programmes are largely geared towards self-employment, work opportunities are more likely to be close to the women’s home, which agrees with another one of Kabeer’s recommendations. The issue of gender sensitivity in relation to the location of employment is connected to two issues. First, in the context of Bangladesh, paid work within home is likely to have greater social acceptability and conformity to restrictive norms, although there might be a lower rate of return compared to informal work outside home (Kabeer, Mahmud & Tasneem, 2011). Secondly, an empirical study done by Kabeer and colleagues demonstrated that work outside of the home, regardless of the social benefits it may or may not offer, carry certain costs. This is because in countries where there are strong restrictions of women’s mobility in the public domain, women working outside their domestic settings are more likely to face harassment and abuse, and longer hours of work disadvantages their health (Kabeer, Mahmud & Tasneem, 2011:11). Graduation programmes could provide participants with opportunities that are closer to home instead of informal employment that are further away from home.  

This argument is slightly complicated since some graduation programmes entail public work instead of entrepreneurial activities, in which case employment might be located further from the women’s home. However, taking Rwanda’s Vision 2020 Umurenge Programme (VUP) as an example where public work is one of the programme components, participants can work around their community (Gahamanyi & Kettlewell, 2015).

Challenges of the Graduation Model for Women

Many reports, studies and literature have agreed that the graduation programmes empower women (Mcllvaine, K. et al, 2015; Haneef, C. et al., 2014; Hashemi & Umaira, 2011), but it is virtually impossible for development programme to address all needs. In this section, I argue that graduation programmes may not cater to certain women.

Competition for Time and Resources – Domestic and Childcare Responsibilities

According to Kabeer (2008), gender-sensitive social protection programmes should incorporate measures to reduce women’s domestic workloads, and provide childcare support to working women. In relation to this framework, Roelen (2015) argued that graduation programmes could compete for the time and resources of participants. Women with children are required to balance between meeting programme requirements to graduate, and their domestic responsibilities. Roelen further theorised this as the ‘twofold investment trap’ (2015), which refers to the allocation of money and time.

First, there is competition between allocating monetary resources to livelihood investments and meeting children’s needs. Monetary resources are required for asset accumulation and livelihood promotion, such as purchasing agricultural seeds and tools to engage in productive farming activities. This also means that the participant may face the opportunity cost of having less monetary resources to invest in their children. Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme found that participants with many young children had to make choices between meeting their children’s immediate food needs and making livelihood investments to meet programme requirements. On the contrary, it is reported that participants with fewer or no children found it easier to make a choice between foregoing meals in order to make the required investments for their micro-enterprises (Roelen, 2015). Mothers face difficult choices between investing in livelihood promotions that would more likely lead to better outcomes in the long-term, as opposed to addressing the immediate nutrition needs of their children.

Secondly, meeting the programme requirements to graduate also competes for the participants’ time for unpaid care work and other domestic responsibilities at home. Alike conditional cash transfer programmes, graduation programmes require women to take part in certain activities such as attending trainings and meetings, and then engaging in entrepreneurial activities or take part in public work programmes. Similarly, women with children and limited childcare support at home are faced with a trade-off when attending activities and engaging in income-generating activities, because it means that they have less time to care for their children (Roelen, 2015). A qualitative study evaluating Rwanda’s VUP programme found that caregivers experienced difficulties in providing adequate care for their children, undergoing household chores and at the same time fulfilling the public works requirement of the programme. This can be particularly difficult for women if their work disallows them to engage fully in nutritious feeding practises for their children. Kabeer’s suggestion to provide childcare support to working women is relevant for graduation programmes, which could imply the need to take in account the number of young children the participant has, and the amount of childcare support that she has at home.

Children of working mothers are particularly vulnerable as the latter must work to feed the family, but are given little support for childcare and domestic responsibilities (Kabeer, 2008). In my opinion, this has serious implications especially in cultural contexts that place great importance on motherhood. In a recent research conducted by McIntyre and Rondeau among ultra-poor women in Bangladesh, the concept of ‘personal wellbeing’ among all these women in the study was linked to their children, and personal fulfilment acquired was primarily related to their behaviours as mothers rather than individuals (2013). It is essential that the graduation programmes address this feature of gender sensitivity and allow participants to have adequate time and support for childcare responsibilities.

Graduation Programmes are for Entrepreneurs and Women of Certain Personalities  

Most graduation programmes promote self-employment. In a study done by the International Growth Centre about how basic entrepreneurship could transform the economic lives of the poor, it concluded that when extremely destitute women are provided with sufficient capital and skills, constraints such as social norms and other challenges would not prevent them from becoming independent, successful entrepreneurs (Bandiera et al., 2013). However, occupational change is not without its challenges. In rural Bangladesh, a setting that is representative of many across the developing world where vast numbers of the extreme poor are dependent on insecure wage labour, many factors need to be considered for them to become entrepreneurs (Bandiera et al., 2013). In particular with CFPR/TUP, a report by the Centre for Social Protection at the Institute of Development Studies recorded that possessing certain traits is essential for graduation. Women who are more confident, organised and take the initiative tend to graduate more easily than others who do not possess these characteristics (Hashemi & Umaira, 2011). Despite the fact that training and support are available, and that it is the choice of the woman whether to be part of the programme, it is also fair to assume that not all participants are suitable to be entrepreneurs. In this sense, it counter argues women’s empowerment theory on “the expansion in people’s ability to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previous denied to them” (Kabeer, 1999:437), especially when the graduation programme is the only available intervention in a particular context. It raises the question of whether women have other choices if they wish to achieve better livelihood outcomes via the graduation programme, but do not have the will or capacity to be entrepreneurs. It is advisable that the programme design and the personnel involved are flexible enough in responding to different types of participants. Women that are less confident to set up their own micro-businesses may require extra motivation from staff and other women, especially those that have graduated. Another feature that the graduation programmes could incorporate is, if the context allows, is to make available the options for participants to either become self-employed, or participate in public work programmes. Rwanda’s VUP programme is an example that provides public work (Gahamanyi & Kettlewell, 2015).

Potential Intra-household Dynamics

Graduation programmes could potentially share problems encountered by microfinance female clients within the household, such as funds being controlled by male relatives. Based on a research about microfinance programme outcomes, it was found that the male relatives of female borrowers directly invested a significant proportion of loans while latter was responsible for the liability for repayment (Goetz & Gupta, 1996). In a study by Goetz and Gupta, it was found that out of 151 Grameen Bank loans lent to women, 12% surrendered the entire loan to their husbands or other male guardians (Goetz & Gupta, 1996: 49). Other negative aspects of microfinance include cases where the responsibilities of loan repayments were being borne by the female client despite the loans being accrued to men, causing increased levels of stress and dependency (Kabeer, 1998; Goetz & Gupta, 1996; Rahman, 1999). Microfinance could be a powerful platform to empower women, as Kabeer argued that in Bangladesh, bringing financial resources to the households gave women an agency and a sense of power from within (1998), but the fact that in some cases where male relatives have more control over the funds implies a certain level of caution. This is not to say that such notion is completely negative, but it deserves discretion in cases where high degrees of male control of funds postpone the positive outcome expected from women’s control of household income (Goetz & Gupta, 1996), such as investing in children’s education. Goetz and Gupta further implied that if the men invest the loans badly, it could even undermine household survival strategies (1996). The cash transfer component of graduation programmes could potentially trigger the same issue; hence it is important to take into account the potential intra-household dynamics and control of cash that may appear in households.


While the graduation model has lifted many households from extreme poverty and is considered one of the most comprehensive and innovative poverty alleviation models, I argued that graduation programmes achieve better outcomes for women of certain characteristics, namely those with less care responsibilities and an entrepreneurial disposition. On the other hand, graduation programmes can present critical challenges for other types of beneficiaries, especially women with heavier childcare and domestic responsibilities, those who are less confident to pursue entrepreneurial activities, and those that may face intra-household dynamics. This is because fulfilling the requirements to graduate could be in conflict with resources needed for childcare and domestic chores. Further, women who prefer employment instead of setting up their micro-businesses face a lack of options and may perform less well. Programme participants could also share financial control problems with other male members of the households – problems that have been encountered in some cases with microfinance clients. Although it may be overly idealistic to expect that an intervention should cater to such a diverse range of needs, programme design can follow a gender-sensitive framework and take into account the situations that different types of women may face.


Sarabe Chan is a Chevening Scholar currently pursuing MA Poverty and Development at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK. She is the co-founder of Say for Development. 



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