Do Self-Help Groups Transform the Lives of Poor Women? A Reading List

While self-help groups are seen as vital to successful anti-poverty policies , they have failed to develop the collective bargaining power of women and comprehensively incorporate the demands made by beneficiaries.

India’s central and state governments have made varied attempts at reducing poverty through multiple schemes. The National Democratic Alliance government in July 2019 declared that they seek to include at least one “woman member from each rural poor household (about 9 crore)” in self-help groups (SHGs). The state has generally seen SHGs as spaces where poor women support one another’s financial and social needs towards the goal of income generation. The state also links SHG networks to banks with the stated intention of offering loans that would encourage livelihood activities. 

Given that poverty is a multidimensional issue, any approach that attempts to address it must be comprehensive and also take seriously the impact poverty has on people’s everyday ability to live a healthy and dignified life.  

This reading list juxtaposes how policymakers imagine women’s participation in SHGs and how beneficiaries themselves interact and negotiate their circumstances in relation to attempts at poverty alleviation by governments. 

1) Origins of Self-Employment Schemes and Beneficiaries’ Demands
K Kalpana writes that traditional anti-poverty policies incorporated self-employment schemes based on credit for the first time with the Integrated Rural Development Programme in 1980. While the programme aimed to include at least 30% of women among the total beneficiaries, Kalpana notes that they were the group most likely to be excluded that found that women constituted less than 5% of the total beneficiaries based on a midterm review of the program. 

[T]his led to the launch of the Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWCRA) in 1982-83 which eliminated male competition by exclusively targeting women (Kabeer and Murthy 1996). In the early 1990s, women’s SHGs or neighbourhood-based informal groups of about 12-20 members began to make their appearance in the rural development landscape, especially in the south Indian states.  

Based on an ethnographic study of three villages in northern Tamil Nadu in 2005–2006, Kalpana offers a bottom-up view of how women engage with a scheme that relies on SHGs. She details the shortcomings of the schemes and the specific demands that women made. 

Women were asking not only that the state expand opportunities in paid work for women, but that it proactively intervene in order to restructure their work environments and help enhance monetary returns to their labour. Their demands remind us that, despite the successful “mainstreaming” of women by anti-poverty livelihood programmes and the undeniable emergence of women as a constituency in Indian development planning, the Indian state has had little success in transforming the material conditions that place women of impoverished households in subordinate positions in wage labour markets.  

2) Three Forms of Empowerment
S Galab and N Chandrasekhara Rao evaluate three programmes run by the Andhra Pradesh state government in 1998–2002 using a framework of empowerment. Citing Neera Burra, Joy Deshmukh-Ranadive & Ranjani K Murthy, Galab and Rao categorise empowerment in three ways. First, “power to” examines the “power of women to control their lives.” Specifically, this includes control over resources, freedom of movement, access to positions of leadership, and control over reproduction/one’s body. Second, “power with” denotes the  “collective power of women members to negotiate their gender, caste, class and other interests vis-à-vis institutions of the market, the state, and the community.” Third, “power within” is about women’s capacity to question gender-related beliefs and social norms in their own personal lives. Galab and Rao offer a mixed review of the three SHG programmes using this framework. 

[I]t is clear that women are able to improve control over their labour, resources (saving, credit and income), freedom to move and interact leadership, and reproductive choices, to some extent. Thus, there is improvement to some extent with regard to ‘power to’ dimension of empowerment. But, there is no improvement in the ‘power with’ dimension of empowerment. This is evident from the absence of the collective initiatives of women members to negotiate their gender, caste, class and other interests vis-à-vis institutions of the market, the state, the community and family. The women are able to handle some of the issues relating to their lives independently.  This indicates that ‘power within’ dimension of empowerment is impacted due to participation in SHGs to some extent.

3) Do SHGs Encourage Collective Negotiation? 
Vasanth Kannabiran’s analysis of SHG programmes is similarly critical of women’s ability to collectively negotiate their social background in relation to formidable institutions. 

Expecting the poor to pull themselves out of poverty through entrepreneurship only leaves the systemic inequalities and factors that create poverty unchallenged and secure. Narrowly defined instrumentalist agendas of the state are now being relabelled ‘social agendas’ and a collective is a group that simply comes together to save. This erases the intensive and painstaking process of building trust, reflection and solidarity in a collective that can then act jointly. What self-help groups provide women today is mere membership while obstructing and obscuring their movement to citizenship and political power. The ‘self-help movement’ serves to advertise the state’s accountability on the status of women in the international arena. 

4) Identifying Barriers to Access Schemes  
In 2012, the government of West Bengal introduced the Anandadhara programme that sought to generate “self-employment and skilled wage employment opportunities.”  Loes Schenk-Sandbergen argues that the ideology that underpins the programme is a belief that “social empowerment will emerge from economic empowerment.” Based on a study of three villages in a district of West Bengal, Schenk-Sandbergen argues that SHGs failed to address the multiple barriers that prevent the poorest of women from accessing the scheme.

Our data shows that there are several obvious reasons why poor women are not members of SHGs. Poverty is the most obvious: landless women cannot save Rs 30–40 every month for a year before they are entitled to apply for a loan. Furthermore, they are expected to repay the instalments with interest whilst continuing the monthly savings. One landless Santhal woman reasoned, “What we earn today, we spend today.” Another woman said, “Where is the work in the group? I only see talk about money.” That observation hits the nail on the head. “What to sell, where, and to whom?” 

Sandbergen thus contends that SHG programmes which aim to integrate women into the financial flow through microcredit schemes must account for these layers of obstacles faced by landless women in gaining employment. Schenk-Sandbergen argues that the government should focus on policies that generate stable employment for landless women and men, and create infrastructure and public goods. 

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