Scaling up Women’s Economic Empowerment in India

June 20, 2017

  • The World Bank's decade-long support to the Indian state of Bihar have brought transformational change to the lives of nearly seven million rural women by organizing them into self-help groups, building institutional platforms, providing access to financial services, enhancing livelihood activities, and linking them to markets.
  • The project in Bihar inspired the government to launch the National Rural Livelihood Mission which has empowered more than 45 million women who have collectively saved $1.4 billion and leveraged $20 billion from commercial banks.
  • More than 30 country delegations from Afghanistan, Nepal, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Ethiopia, and Azerbaijan have visited NRLM projects so far to replicate the model.

The World Bank is helping the Indian government to scale up a women's empowerment initiative in one of the poorest regions of India to bring transformational change to the lives of rural women, their families, the economy, and society.

Since 2011, the $500 million National Rural Livelihoods Project has promoted women's economic empowerment in 13 low-income states in India as part of its support to the government of India's flagship rural poverty reduction program, the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM). It drew heavily on the lessons and success of the Bank-supported Bihar Rural Livelihoods Project, known as "Jeevika," which means "livelihoods" in Hindi. Jeevika, which started in 2007 and continued into a second phase in 2016, focused on creating self-help groups for women to provide them with access to small enterprise funding, services, and public entitlements.

In the state of Bihar alone, thanks to Jeevika, there are currently nearly seven million women who are part of self-help groups. Through these groups, the women have saved nearly $64 million and leveraged another $511 million from the formal financial sector. It has also significantly helped to reduce the groups' dependency on high-cost debt from moneylenders.  Before the project started, rural households in Bihar struggled to access credit from formal sources because they did not have collateral or credit history. Most importantly, in the absence of strong institutions, poor women did not have voice or agency to engage productively with local markets and face challenges to access public programs.

"Just a few years back, I was surviving on the back of a sewing machine, stitching 2-3 pieces of clothes a day with blisters on my hands," said Kiran Devi, who joined a self-help group in Bihar ten years ago and is now a director at the Aranyak Producer Company, a women-owned farmer's producer company. The company delivers better prices for more than 6,000 maize farmers in Purnia district of Bihar. She has recently purchased a tractor for $16,000, half from her own savings.

The project supports small women producers through agriculture and livestock productivity enhancement, value chain development, and non-farm activities. It helps the women to form producer groups at the village level to act as local hubs for collective training, to aggregate their produce, and to control quality. Larger women-owned producer companies undertake collective procurement through these groups and provide direct market linkage for small women farmers who previously sold to local middlemen.

"Their narrations of personal experience and efforts opened a whole new dimension," said Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar. "It was a revelation to see the seeds of a deep-seated social transformation in Bihar like never before."

The learning from the success of Jeevika contributed immensely to the launch of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) by the Government of India in 2011 to scale up the model across all the 30 states of the country. The NRLM so far has reached to more than 45 million women. Collectively they have saved $1.4 billion and leveraged $20 billion from commercial banks.  NRLM is also supporting nearly 3.3 million women farmers to increase their productivity in agriculture and livestock.

"We are absolutely amazed at what the self-help groups have achieved," said Junaid Ahmad, World Bank's Country Director in India during his recent visit to the NRLM program in the low-income state of Jharkhand. "It is remarkable to see how these women groups are able to manage their fast-expanding role in the area's economy, while demanding, and receiving, better services from local governments to strengthen their functioning. It is beyond what we can define in the World Bank as women's empowerment."

The project is applying an innovative approach to build a large cadre of community resource persons to help the scaling across 30 states.

"155,000 women who have come out of poverty are the greatest agents of change in promoting sustainable agriculture, providing banking services, developing a cadre of veterinarians for animal care, bookkeepers, and accountants but most importantly agents for social transformation in villages," said Amarjeet Sinha, Secretary, with the  ministry of rural development, Government of India.

These empowered women then identify and mobilize other poor women into self-help groups and provide them with microcredit savings and loans, help them make plans so they can escape poverty too.

Parmesh Shah, the task team leader for the National Rural Livelihoods Project, said scaling up is centered on an ecosystem approach to develop new engagement, solutions, and alliances to meet the client demand for high-quality technical assistance, adoption of high impact innovations, and quality capacity building of more than 10,000 professionals.

In order to scale up the project, the World Bank has applied a series of unique interventions such as organizing an 'Innovation Forums' that enabled innovations by the public, private and social enterprise sectors across many livelihood areas to be systematically identified and scaled up through the program across states.  NRLP has also set up a learning alliance that allows states like Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala to share experience and to help other low-income states to scale up the model. And finally, a human resource policy has introduced the hiring of young graduates from leading management institutes.

The National Rural Livelihoods Mission is providing important lessons to other Bank projects in Africa and East Asia. More than 30 country delegations from Afghanistan, Nepal, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Ethiopia, and Azerbaijan have visited the Indian states where the project succeeded to replicate the model.