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Thomas de Hoop (American Institutes for Research) and Sapna Desai (Population Council) | Oct 11, 2021

Jeevika women

The Evidence Consortium on Women’s Groups (ECWG) grew out of a commitment to building a solid evidence base on what women’s groups can achieve, where, and how. As an interdisciplinary group of researchers, primarily from the domains of economics and public health, we are synthesizing existing evidence and conducting new analyses to examine the effects, cost-effectiveness, and implementation models of women’s groups. Women’s groups is an umbrella term for different models of economic, health, and community groups with a primarily female membership. These include self-help groups, savings groups, health groups, and many others.

During an upcoming panel at the What Works Global Summit 2021: Evidence for Development, the ECWG will present four evidence syntheses on women’s groups. The session will include presentations of our scoping review on women’s groups in Uganda; a systematic review of the impact of integrated economic and health interventions with women’s groups on health outcomes; an evidence synthesis on how covariate shocks affect women’s groups and their members; and a review of reviews of the effectiveness of adolescent girls’ groups.

We have learned many key lessons about women’s groups through our work thus far, several of which we will present during this session, including:

  1. There is a considerable – and growing – appetite for generating and using evidence across settings and outcome areas on how to support and build women’s groups at a national scale most effectively. Government-led programs in India, Nigeria and Uganda have evolved and adapted to address women’s economic empowerment and well-being through women’s groups, while NGO-supported women’s group programs demonstrate a wealth of possible models. For example, our scoping review of women’s groups in Uganda shows that many groups use a blended approach that includes savings, credit, and other financial activities, but groups also focus on special populations, such as adolescent girls and war-affected women in Northern Uganda. The scoping review showed promising but mixed evidence for positive impacts of women’s groups in Uganda, particularly for financial inclusion and economic outcomes. However, evidence on cost-effectiveness was very limited, demonstrating the need to collect more cost data. The Government of Uganda felt the same need and recently commissioned studies on the costs and cost-effectiveness of women’s group programming.
  2. Evidence across settings provided insight into women’s groups’ effectiveness for specific domains, such as gender-based violence. Our ongoing systematic review of the effects, enablers and barriers to improving health through integrated economic and health interventions with women’s groups – sometimes referred to as “layered” interventions – covers 39 interventions across 19 low- and middle-income countries (over one-third in India). The review indicates that achieving sufficient coverage of the women for whom programs are intended, and ensuring adequate implementation intensity influence the effectiveness of groups to achieve health outcomes. Also, context matters, though we are trying to examine how and at what level. For example, pilot interventions to address gender-based violence have had success in some sub-Saharan African settings, but similar implementation models in South Asia have not shown reductions in gender-based violence. Investing in community involvement, as well as identifying common implementation barriers, may help improve future interventions of women’s groups aiming to reduce gender-based violence.
  3. Researchers and funders of research must pay much closer attention to implementation models of women’s groups to increase relevance for policymakers, practitioners and advocates. A savings group described in one study seldomly uses the same implementation model as a savings group described in another study, even when both groups fall squarely in the definition of savings groups. For example, groups may have different eligibility criteria, membership profiles and meeting requirements. All these factors influence not just what works, but also for whom.

    In our review of reviews of how adolescent groups improve economic empowerment, we found extensive gaps in the documentation of intervention content and implementation processes. While some models of girls’ groups reported evidence of improving financial literacy, for example, it remained unclear which implementation approaches worked, and, importantly, how. We must also tease apart the question of “for whom?” Current evidence is unclear on what economic interventions work best for younger adolescent girls’ groups versus those for older adolescents or young women.
  4. Better analysis of implementation models can also inform adaptation to different circumstances. Our synthesis of evidence of how women’s groups have responded to covariate shocks, such as floods or earthquakes, helped develop a lens through which to examine how groups can respond to COVID-19. While shocks invariably negatively affect women’s groups when they cannot meet – potentially at the expense of long-term sustainability – pre-existing groups can play a crucial role in community-based disaster and crisis response. As communities develop longer-term resilience strategies to COVID-19 or climactic vulnerability, evidence indicates that women’s groups can support households through social solidarity, enabling consumption stability and links to information and services. Synthesizing our experience about what makes groups work—their implementation strategies and processes—is key to imagining roles in the present and future. In fact, the findings of the review were consistent with emerging findings related to the short-term effects of COVID-19 on women’s groups and their members. Just like in past covariate shocks, our review of women’s groups and COVID-19 showed that savings groups contributed to mitigating some of the negative economic consequences of COVID-19.

Evidence points to vast potential for women’s groups to expand to new settings and to new outcome areas. We have also found that economies of scale, such as with government self-help group programs in India, may help these groups to achieve improvements in financial inclusion cost-effectively.

In health, addressing chronic diseases is likely more appropriate for the older age demographic of women members in most savings groups. At the same time, groups in and out of school, can help adolescents in the future. The evidence base, therefore, must move from merely examining effects to comparing implementation models, considering contextual influences and identifying enablers and barriers to implementation.

We look forward to discussing these and other findings during the What Works Global Summit 2021: Evidence for Development. Please attend our panel about evidence syntheses on women’s groups in international development on 21 October at 15.45 CET.

Note: This blog first appeared on the Campbell Collaboration website. Read more blogs from the Campbell Collaboration here.