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Sapna Desai (Population Council) & Thomas de Hoop (American Institutes for Research) | Mar 4, 2020

Women of PRADAN promoted self help groups during a meeting in Sundari village, Jharkhand, India, on April 19, 2015.

Women of PRADAN promoted self help groups during a meeting in Sundari village, Jharkhand, India, on April 19, 2015.
Photo credit: ©Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Prashant Panjiar

Interventions through women’s groups  – groups of women who come together to provide economic and social support to one another – may have the potential to catalyze meaningful change in the lives of some of the poorest women around the world.  While there is a long history of community-based women’s groups and grassroots movements, women’s groups have become a common strategy in development programs more recently.  When we each started our research on women’s groups more than a decade ago, we were cautiously optimistic about whether and how development interventions that bring women together improve lives. Sapna worked with the Self-Employed Women’s Association on implementing various women’s group models and researching how they affected members’ health and well-being in India. Thomas studied self-help groups in Odisha, India, and at the global level to examine how they relate to women’s empowerment and social norms. These experiences, along with a growing evidence base, shaped our view that a longer-term commitment to generating and using evidence to inform program design of women’s groups may greatly improve the implementation, impact and cost-effectiveness of these programs in South Asia and Africa.

Today, several governments and funding agencies are enthusiastic about women’s groups and are making large investments to see if they can deliver results. In some countries, government efforts are promoting women’s groups at an unprecedented scale, including India’s National Rural Livelihoods Mission, the Nigeria for Women Project, and the Ugandan Sustainable Livelihoods program.  Various studies suggest that such women’s groups can have positive effects on women’s empowerment, financial inclusion, consumption and asset ownership for landless households under certain conditions. Existing and emerging programs are also testing to see if economic women’s groups can serve as a “platform” to connect women with a wide range of other services, such as improving nutrition or providing support to women affected by violence.  Based on successful pilots that improved health outcomes, India’s National Health Mission now supports women’s groups practicing participatory learning and action in several states.  

Although promising, the evidence has not quite caught up with the excitement around women’s groups.  While several studies indicate encouraging results, the overall evidence base is mixed. It also remains thin on implementation models, costs, cost-effectiveness, and scale. This leaves policymakers with enthusiasm, but limited direction on approaches to effectively implement women’s groups.

We don’t want women’s groups to become a fad with unrealistic expectations. For this reason, it is critical to examine what we know about groups and provide policymakers with the opportunity to use evidence to help groups work better.

The Evidence Consortium on Women’s Groups (ECWG) aims to improve what we know about what works to achieve positive impacts with women’s groups, and why. To accomplish this goal, we are bringing together researchers across disciplines to build an evidence base that can inform the implementation of women’s groups interventions, with a focus on large-scale programs. To support our collective goals, we developed a new website that brings together the evidence on women’s groups, and equips policymakers and implementers with the tools they need to inform programs and policies.

However, just sharing evidence is not enough. In order to fully understand the potential of women’s groups, we need to address key evidence gaps to enable policymakers to make evidence-based decisions. We present more details in the ECWG’s learning agenda, but here are two key evidence gaps we will address:  

We know very little about how groups are implemented

How often do groups meet? For how long? Who attends? How much do group members save and borrow? Due to the limited evidence on implementation, different group types are often conflated, or evidence on the effects of microfinance institutions is extrapolated inaccurately to women’s groups. To inform women’s group programming, we need to know how groups operate on the ground, and what is realistic to expect in government programs operating at scale. We also require much more mixed-methods research on how groups work and what mechanisms emerge in different contexts.

We know very little about groups’ costs and cost-effectiveness

Most of the evidence on cost-effectiveness comes from India, with little to no evidence on these topics relating to women’s groups in sub-Saharan Africa. It is vital to examine costs – and importantly, opportunity costs – and the cost-effectiveness of different implementation models. Increasingly, these implementation models include integrated models that use women’s groups as a platform to deliver livelihoods training or health education, which complicates the analysis of costs. Increasing the use of cost-effectiveness analyses will help funders, policy makers, and implementers to improve their understanding which models can maximize the impact and the cost-effectiveness of women’s groups across different contexts.

The ECWG is working to fill some of these evidence gaps and support others who are conducting research on the impact, implementation and cost-effectiveness of women’s groups. But to successfully build out the evidence base and help stimulate the generation, dissemination, and use of evidence by policymakers and implementers, we need your support. Through the ECWG website, we’d like to spotlight your contributions to women’s groups through blogs or new research and share your strategies for leveraging existing evidence to inform programming.

We know we are not alone in wanting to use evidence to improve the lives of women around the world, and hope this consortium is one step towards an evidence-based path forward for women’s groups.