Author: Ranjani K. Murthy, April 17 2018* - The basic income movement has a long history. As used now, a basic income is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement. Basic income is thus universal, individual, unconditional and periodical payment (Basic Income Earth Network - BIEN, n.d.)   Posing an argument for basic income, Shoemaker observes that wage labour (one could add capital) cannot and should not be the only reason for membership within our society. There are care giving and volunteer jobs which contribute to society.  Arguments of freedom (to pursue paths one chooses), justice and poverty reduction are placed by advocates of Basic Income (Shoemaker, n.d.).  According to Davala, basic income should be seen as an entitlement to national public wealth.** 

This article explores what basic income could contribute/contributes to SDG 5 on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (GEWE) of All Girls and Women. The World Economic Forum observes that gender gap in critical areas such as health and education are closing, but significant gender inequality persists in the economic and in political spheres (WEF, 2017). In fact, some countries like India have seen widening of gender gap in economic sphere over the recent years.  Not captured by the report, violence against women and girls persists, and the Me-Too campaign highlighted that violence against women and girls is pervasive in even Scandinavian countries (Nordberg 2017).  It is in this context that the SDG 5 targets listed below are relevant:

  1. End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.
  2. Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.
  3. Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation.
  4. Recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate.
  5. Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision making in political, economic and public life.
  6. Ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as agreed in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences.

5a. Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws.

5b. Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women.

5c. Adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels.

Source: UN Women, n.d.

Basic income and SDG 5: Potential links

Schulz observes that existing social security systems are beyond the reach of workers in informal sector, where women predominate (Schulz, 2017). This includes unemployment allowance, workers’ compensation, maternity leave etc.  She argues that a universal and individual basic income recognises unremunerated work like unpaid care work by women (SDG 5 target 4). Basic income could potentially enable women to purchase care services and enter the labour market on full time or part time basis (SDG 5 target 4).   At the same time, feminists have observed that there is a possibility that women may withdraw themselves from labour force when they have access to basic income or be compelled to so in a patriarchal context (Zelleke, 2017, Schulz, 2017).

Poor women and girls can also access technology like mobile phones if they bunched their basic income for a few months, though such evidence is yet to be recorded (contributing to target 5c). 

An aspect little explored is the impact of basic income on political participation of women (contributing to target 5). Campaign expenses have always been a barrier to poor women contesting elections on their own merit (i.e. not as somebody else’s proxy, who campaigns and attends for them).  Access to basic income could help these women contest local government elections on their own and enter leadership positions (contributing to target 5).  Access to basic income could also increase women’s decision making in households.

Sexual and reproductive health services are often not accessible to poor women. Part of the reason, though not all, is monetary. Basic income could enhance access to menstrual hygiene pads, contraception, and abortion services if necessary.  Reproductive cancer screening could be availed of where government services are not available (contributing to target 6). 

Basic income can help women come out of violence situation, and access legal and counselling services.  An economic fall-back position could help reduce discrimination and violence against women (contributing to target 1, 2).  It can support transwomen to live a life with dignity.  In fact, The Canadian Basic Income in its meeting in 2016 had a round-table on "Basic Income’s Role in Ending Violence Against Women" (contributing to target 2). Young women in patriarchal settings may be able to enhance age at marriage and choice in marriages if they had access to basic income. They will less likely be seen as a liability (contributing to target 3). 

Women can potentially pool basic income for advocacy with government for better implementation of legislation and programmes for women’s advancements (contributing to target 5c).

Basic income and SDG 5 in India: Actual convergences and challenges

This section draws heavily on two studies: one by SEWA Bharat in Madhya Pradesh, India, in general villages (mixed communities) and tribal villages (only tribal communities) surveying participants in basic village (before-after) and a control group of non-participants from the same area (SEWA Bharat, n.d.).  It also draws on a Legacy Study conducted by SEWA Bharat and India Network for Basic Income (INBI) conducted four years after the basic income programme only in tribal villages, again with basic income participants and non-participants (Davala et al 2017).  Earlier, between 2011 and 2013, in 9 villages of Madhya Pradesh, a basic income of Rs.300 per month was paid to all adults individually into their bank accounts or given as cash (tribal villages) and half the amount was given to children through their mothers or guardians for one year. 

The first study shows that Adivasi (tribal) women participants had bunched their basic income over 10 months and purchased livestock and increased their asset base and reduced their poverty (contributing to target 5a). The livestock assets were also seen as an insurance against contingencies.   More women are engaged now in agriculture than before.  The share of women in the tribal basic income villages, whose primary activity was farming almost doubled, rising from 39% to 66% (SEWA Bharat, n.d.). For women-heading households, basic income is particularly important for their livelihood security. At the collective level, women and men have pooled their basic income and taken on lease common property resources like fish tank collectively (contributing to target 5a).Women’s economic participation had increased in general villages (non-tribal) as a result of basic income, in contrast to anxieties of withdrawal from paid work (SEWA Bharat, n.d.). Some women have moved from being wage labourers to entrepreneurs. Some of these economic benefits have been sustained after four years (Davala et al, 2017).   

A question related to decision making that arises, is: do women have control over household income?  In a study by SEWA Bharat, 54% of participant women in basic income general villages in MP reported that household income was divided equally, compared to 39% of women in control villages (SEWA Bharat, n.d.). In the tribal villages, there was a perceptible shift from a norm of the household head deciding on how income was spent to a weaker norm and a relative shift towards equal decision-making (ibid, n.d.).  This evidence points to contribution of basic income to target 5, SDG 5, though at intra household level. An impressive 85% of participants in tribal villages expressed that women’s position had improved in society through the basic income programme, though the pathways are not too clear (Davala et al, 2017). 

Gender-related benefits have of basic income have been noted beyond the economic sphere.  For one, gender-based discrimination in nutrition, health and education were reported to have reduced through access to individual basic income (contributing to target 1, SDG 5).  Diet and weight by age of girls had improved more for girls than boys in basic income general villages. Access to food and nutrition of women with disability had also improved as they received basic income individually (SEWA Bharat, n.d.).  In the tribal Basic Income village, tribal women accessed health facilities and took medicines regularly more than in the control village (SEWA Bharat, n.d.).  Male alcohol consumption reduced in tribal villages as they had diversified their livelihoods and had less free time. 

A striking change was higher expenditure on schooling for girls, and reduction in gender differences in enrolment. The basic income recipients spent more on educating their girls than before the basic income transfers started, and the total mean expenditure on educating girls increased by nearly 88% between 2011-12 and 2016-17. This was mostly due to increased spending on school fees, attributable to new enrolments, i.e. girls not in school who were enrolled during the pilot (Davala et al, 2017). Girl children’s enrolment in school could reduce child marriage (target 3 SDG 5).

Not a conclusion

Internationally, the feminist argument on the link between Basic Income and Gender Equality has concentrated on economic valuation of unpaid work and the role basic income could play in the sphere of work.  The evidence from India basic income initiative in MP (spanning a year) widens the debate further and points additionally to contribution of basic income to lowering discrimination in education, nutrition and health (target 1, SDG 5), eliminating harmful practices like child marriage (target 3, SDG 5), improving women’s access and control over resources (target 5c, SDG 5), intra household decision making (target 5, SDG 5). Side effects like withdrawal of women from the labour market were not seen, perhaps given the poverty levels.

Further, as shown in Figure 1 below, there is the possibility of a wider impact of Basic Income on violence against women, political participation of women, women’s access to technology, reducing violence against women, ending harmful practices beyond child marriage and sexual and reproductive health and rights - in the short various targets of SDG 5.  

Progress towards SDG 5 through basic income could expand power to (individual), power with (collective) and power within (consciousness) of women leading to a trajectory of women’s empowerment which is upwards (Rowlands, 1997).

Figure 1: Basic income and SDG%  


For basic income to contribute to SDG 5, there are pre-requisites. Women should get their basic income independent of women and their children’s.  Further, as pointed by the Legacy Study, benefits may not entirely sustain if stopped after a year, a long-term perspective may be required to deal with contingencies like ill health of women, girls and other family members, crop failures, etc.   The amount of individual basic income for adults and children required for sustainable impact on goals of gender equality and women’s empowerment is also a point of debate, with more than half the per capita poverty line being desirable. State delivery of health, education, water and other basic services needs to continue with basic income. Yet another lesson is that presence of a women’s organisation makes a difference to the extent to which basic income translated into gender equality and women’s empowerment. 


There is need for research and documentation of impact of basic income on all SDG 5 targets - in particular controversial issues like violence against women, sexual and reproductive rights, ending harmful practices, etc. Further, intersectional analysis is required to look at impact of basic income on women of colour, Dalits, indigenous groups, minorities, headship, abilities and of different gender identity/sexual orientation, etc. 


Finally, it could be argued that basic income could have a bearing on achievement of other SDGs, too (e.g., eliminating poverty, hunger, inequalities, etc). 

*  The author would like to acknowledge the inputs of Dr. Sarath Davala, India Network of Basic Income. He however bears no responsibility of shortcomings of this article. 

**  See Basic Income Hindi. 


Basic Income Earth Network, n.d. About Basic Income

Patricia Schulz, “Universal basic income in a feminist perspective and gender analysis,” Global Social Policy Forum, January 31, 2017

UN Women, n.d. SDG 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Basic Income Hindi

Davala, S, n.d. Women, Invisible Labour Basic Income

Nordberg, J, 2017, Yes, It Happens in Sweden, #Too, New York Times Sunday Review, Dec. 15, 2017

Davala, S, R Jhabvala, G Standing and N Badgaiyan , 2017, Piloting Basic Income A Legacy Study Final Report, SEWA Bharat and INBI

Rowlands, J 1997, Questioning Empowerment: Working with Women in Honduras, Oxford, Oxfam G.B 

SEWA Bharat, n.d., SEWA’s Pilot Study: Madhya Pradesh Unconditional Cash Transfer Project: Executive Summary, SEWA Bharat, Ahmedabad Last accessed 28th March, 2018

Zelleke A, 2017 What Can Universal Basic Income Do for Gender Equality?

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