International Women’s Day: Self-help groups aid communication, empowerment in India

To mark International Women’s Day—with the theme “Rural and Urban Activists Transforming Women’s Lives”—IFPRI is examining the role of rural women activists in bringing change to nutrition and food systems worldwide. This is the second of two posts—read the first here.

Women’s groups are increasingly becoming vehicles for social, political, and economic empowerment around the world. In India, self-help groups (SHGs) are the most visible of these, receiving support from NGOs, the government, and even the private sector. Each SHG typically consists of 10-20 poor women who live near each other, meet regularly, and save small amounts of money in a common account.

Alejandra Arrieta/IFPRI
Women attend a event organized by a self-help group in the village of Basaniya in Madhya Pradesh, India, to discuss recent training sessions in nutrition.

To better understand how SHGs work and how to make their programs more effective, we are working with one of India’s largest NGOs, PRADAN, to examine the impact of layering nutrition-sensitive interventions on their existing agricultural-livelihoods program platform. The four-year research effort is called Women Improving Nutrition through Group-based Strategies (WINGS).

Our study is ongoing, but some early results, based on data from a 2015 survey in five states, indicate SHGs likely do help empower women by enhancing their mobility, building their self-confidence, and providing them with more powerful social networks.

SHGs reduce the cost of delivering information to poor women who might be unaware of public benefits or be excluded from government services such as agricultural extension and information services. For instance, if an SHG actively promotes specific health- and nutrition-related programs, that can increase demand and produce better coordination with community health workers. These groups can also help expand social networks and the communication within them—facilitating the flow of useful information.

Increasing women’s mobility also boosts this information flow. To attend group meetings, women must leave their homes, even if only within their own village. Regular interactions with fellow group members and with external facilitators may also help them grow more adept at communicating. Often, the experience of belonging to a group and interacting regularly with women with similar perspectives can in itself boost self-confidence. Family members (mostly husbands) of women in SHGs may also feel more confident about the ability of these women to engage with the world outside the homestead, perhaps even traveling outside the village with the group.

SHGs also appear to raise members’ political participation and enhance public accountability. Attending the groups’ regular meetings may make women more likely to attend village council meetings. Speaking in a collective voice, along with enhanced self-confidence, gives them a further boost to advance issues and demand their rights be respected. In some states, SHG members now play an active role in monitoring and improving government programs, including the midday meal school feeding program and the Integrated Child Development Services scheme (ICDS). They help to prepare the midday meal, prepare fortified take-home rations under ICDS, and monitor teacher absenteeism. This helps improve the delivery of services and provider accountability.

Our analysis thus far supports the hypotheses above. We find that, compared to non-SHG members, SHG members are more likely to know and interact with other women, even those outside their locality, attend village meetings, have a voter’s card, vote, and vote according to their own choice. SHG members are not only significantly more likely to know about certain public entitlements, particularly those targeting households, they are also more likely to use the programs they know about. Thus, even if these programs are well-known, SHG members may be more able to translate that information into action, either because of their individual empowerment (through increased mobility, for example), or because of the collective strength of the group.

SHGs also appear to empower women by increasing their knowledge of agricultural practices. Providing agricultural extension services through women’s groups offers an opportunity to overcome the inefficiency and limited reach of India’s public extension system, which typically targets men.

Under India’s National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), state and local governments have partnered with NGOs to introduce programs in sustainable agriculture, livestock rearing, and fisheries through SHGs. These programs provide information on crops, improved practices and government subsidy schemes for inputs, access to crop loans, and better access to markets. Groups are encouraged to pool inputs and outputs to achieve economies of scale, and may function as registered farmer-producer organizations that contract with buyers and sellers.

Have these programs resulted in SHG members adopting better farming practices? Our preliminary results suggest that, while SHG women are more likely to have received information on a range of agricultural practices, they are not necessarily more likely than non-members to have put that information into practice. Although SHG membership is associated with increased decision-making in agriculture, and has reduced empowerment gaps within households, we find limited evidence of SHG membership impact on production diversity or market orientation. Thus, even as SHGs provide expertise and help women start to play a more active role in household decision-making, barriers still exist to putting this agricultural knowledge into practice.
Group-based programs have potential to transform women’s lives, but income constraints, social norms, and traditions still present formidable barriers to women’s full participation in agriculture. While evidence on direct income effects of SHG membership is limited, there is some to suggest that these groups improve women’s economic empowerment—and that NGOs such as PRADAN are likely to yield dividends on this front. SHG membership may also more gradually change social norms and traditions, particularly those that keep women from participating in agriculture.

Such processes take time. But at the present moment, the coverage and reach of the SHG platform is unparalleled and its manifold strengths should be put to work where possible. To do so effectively, more research is required on the long-term impacts of SHG membership and on how to better leverage the group platform. We are hopeful that a continued focus on the capabilities of self-help groups will bring about important changes for women, and that our multi-year impact evaluation will yield valuable insights into these research questions.

Neha Kumar and Agnes Quisumbing are Senior Research Fellows and Kalyani Raghunathan is an Associate Research Fellow in IFPRI's Poverty, Health, and Nutrition Division. This blog was originally posted on

International Women’s Day: In the fight against malnutrition, empower women’s groups first

As International Women’s Day—with the theme “Rural and Urban Activists Transforming Women’s Lives”—approaches, IFPRI is examining the role of rural women activists in bringing change to nutrition and food systems worldwide. The first of two posts.

The transformative role of women’s groups is drawing rising attention around the world. By organizing, women have been able to achieve change within their communities, households, and themselves—despite obstacles such as restrictive gender norms that limit the scope of their decision-making, legal systems that prohibit them from owning property, and domestic responsibilities that limit their ability to earn income and even to rest and take care of their own health.

Sam Scott/IFPRI
Members of a women's self-help group at a meeting in the Dindori district in Madhya Pradesh, India.

Development organizations are increasingly focusing antipoverty and nutrition initiatives around women’s groups. Will these groups prove to be the secret ingredient to solve the global problems of hunger and malnutrition? Our recent review of the linkages between women’s groups and nutrition outcomes in South Asia sheds light on this important question.

In societies with entrenched gender norms, working through women’s groups helps women build social capital and empower themselves. Organizing in this way helps make women more aware of their rights, builds trust in the group and within the community, provides platforms for collective action, and promotes the active role of women as community leaders. The latter is especially relevant to health and nutrition outcomes, as women often act as the keepers of local norms that guide nutritional behavior—including, but not limited to dietary diversity, infant and young child feeding (IYCF) practices, sanitation and hygiene, and access to and utilization of health services. Real solutions to undernutrition emerge when women are connected and given the chance to lead.

Women’s groups help improve health and nutrition outcomes through one or more of four distinct pathways: Increased savings and greater purchasing power; engagement in agriculture; behavior change communication (BCC) to generate knowledge sharing around health and nutrition; and improved community engagement, resulting in social accountability and community demand for government programs focused on nutrition. Common to all these pathways are three elements: Building social capital, acting collectively, and empowering women themselves.
The strength and connections of women’s groups, which often convene conversations around challenges ranging from health to the workplace, are increasingly recognized as a point of entry for effective development initiatives worldwide. Many development organizations are betting on the power of these groups in getting results. India’s National Rural Livelihoods Mission is delivering anti-poverty programs through women’s self-help group platforms, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has already formally recognized the effectiveness of mobilizing women’s groups in improving newborn health, for example.

However, serious gaps remain in research around how women’s groups impact nutrition and health, and direct links are still coming into focus. Few studies have explicitly targeted the crucial 1000-day window for nutrition impacts on children or focused on other nutritionally-vulnerable age groups, perhaps even fewer are based on more reliable data gleaned from randomized controlled trials, and only one study has provided evidence on the multiple pathways from women’s groups to nutrition.

While it is clear that programs targeting women’s groups have significant potential to address malnutrition, not all groups are structured in the same way, nor do they all achieve success. In our examination of 36 studies, the programs that led to positive changes in behaviors related to nutrition all had an explicit nutrition objective.

To take root and address nutritional challenges, we write, women’s organizations “must effectively enable basic tenets of group-based engagement such as building social capital, promoting women's empowerment, and advocating to community leaders.” Finally, their efforts must be focused on changing behavior around nutrition.

As we continue to learn about the role of women’s groups in addressing malnutrition, one thing is abundantly clear: Women have already proven themselves to be catalysts for community development. Now is the time to support the process that these women, working together to improve their lives, have begun.

Neha Kumar and Agnes Quisumbing are Senior Research Fellows in IFPRI's Poverty, Health, and Nutrition Division. This blog was originally posted on

Empowering women in Bangladesh by strengthening the agriculture-nutrition-gender nexus


Cross-posted from written by Akhter Ahmed, Julie Ghostlaw, and Nusrat Hossain

This week's International Women’s Day 2017 celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. Despite significant strides toward gender equality in Bangladesh, there are still many barriers to women’s participation in the agriculture sector. Evidence from IFPRI’s research in Bangladesh shows that an increase in women’s empowerment in agriculture helps to move people out of poverty; improve household, child, and maternal dietary diversity; and increase agricultural diversity.

Ministry pilot project links agriculture, nutrition, and gender
Motivated by this research-based evidence, IFPRI designed the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Gender Linkages (ANGeL) project, a two-year effort piloted by the Bangladesh Ministry of Agriculture through its Department of Agricultural Extension. ANGeL is evaluating the impact of three types of interventions for promoting nutrition and gender-sensitive agriculture:

  • Agriculture Production—Facilitating the production of the high-value food commodities rich in essential nutrients through the diversification of crops, livestock, and the like.
  • Nutrition Knowledge—Conducting high-quality training in behavior-change communication to improve people’s knowledge of nutrition.
  • Gender Sensitization—Undertaking activities to empower women and raise their status while encouraging gender parity.

Results highlight women’s persistent disempowerment
Before launching ANGeL’s field-level activities, empowerment data were collected from 4,000 households across 16 districts in rural Bangladesh.
ANGeL baseline results (graph at upper right) show that 69 percent of women are disempowered. In other words, only 31 percent of women are empowered—10 percent less than the share of men who are empowered (41.5 percent).

Read more here

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