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FEATURE STORYMarch 16, 2023

Learning about Women’s Groups: The evidence from South Asia

women in group

A woman raises her hand to speak at a community meeting in Aurangabad, India. Photo: Simone D. McCourtie, World Bank

Since the 1970’s, women’s groups have been a popular approach to promoting women’s economic empowerment in South Asia. One of the earliest and most well-known groups is India’s Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). SEWA’s approach has been expanded globally through women’s trade unions and cooperatives. Women’s groups are broadly defined as groups of individual women from a community convening with a common purpose. They include self-help groups (SHGs), livelihoods groups and producer collectives as well as groups formed with social action, health, and empowerment objectives.

A review of women’s groups in South Asia shows that groups can positively affect women’s savings, civic inclusion (meaning participation in political and social life), and social capital, but are less successful in improving incomes and labor market participation, especially among programs operating at scale. A recent evaluation of a self-help group credit program in rural India shows that groups can reduce the reliance on high-interest credit from informal moneylenders, as members borrow from the group’s pooled savings.

Yet, despite their growing popularity, little is known about the implementation models of women’s groups. Where information is available, it is often incomplete. Moreover, there is no systematic review of what works, what doesn’t, and why, across the spectrum of women’s groups models. Most evaluations, for example, use broad terms such as women’s groups or SHGs, without describing the wide variation in who is a member, why the groups were organized and how they function.

To address this gap, the South Asia Gender Innovation Lab partnered with the Evidence Consortium on Women’s Groups to map implementation characteristics of women’s groups in South Asia, focusing on groups that seek to improve economic outcomes.

What types of groups exist in practice: where to look?

The team used program and operational documents to document the types of groups that operate in South Asia. In previous reviews, the team relied only on research studies, which had very limited - if any detail – on implementation. To develop the typology, the team created a coding framework that tagged characteristics, such as program design, key activities, costs, and many more. Additional details on the typology can be found here.

savings group

Women attend a community meeting in India. Photo: Curt Carnemark, World Bank

So, what do women’s economic groups in South Asia look like?

The team’s extensive review highlights that women’s economic groups in South Asia vary along three axes - group membership, organizing purpose, and group modality.


1. Women’s economic groups have different membership structures linked to program requirements, organizing purpose and context. Open groups are informal – anyone is free to participate – whereas more formalized groups have closed membership, meaning that meetings and key activities are restricted to group members. Groups that have a focus on livelihoods tend to be open, except for those with additional savings and credit services, which are often closed for meetings and other activities. Savings and credit groups are mostly comprised of women, while livelihoods programs included both women and men, especially outside of India.

Closed group membership was reported by 45 percent of the groups, while 31 percent were open. Additionally, 47 percent included groups with only women, while 47 percent were mixed gender. Notably, government-supported groups focused on financial inclusion were consistently all-women, while livelihoods-focused or NGO-run groups often included both women and men.

2. Most women’s economic groups are organized to cover three key themes – livelihoods; savings and credit; and poverty alleviation.