Self-help group (SHG) programs are the most popular development intervention to stimulate women’s empowerment in South Asia. Both governmental and non-governmental institutions spend formidable resources facilitating these savings and credit groups, under the premise that access to microfinance, training, and group support can enhance women’s empowerment. Empowerment is “the expansion in people’s ability to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously denied to them.” SHGs usually consist of women who come together to save, obtain credit, and receive training. Women’s participation in SHGs can stimulate empowerment through group support, training, and increased financial stability, which might in turn result in improvements in women’s bargaining power, autonomy, and self-confidence.
In partnership with Touro University, AIR conducted a mixed-methods systematic review to determine the impact of women’s SHGs on empowerment and to increase our understanding about the perspectives of SHG members about empowerment mechanisms. We conducted both a quantitative meta-analysis and a qualitative meta-ethnography to address these research questions. A comprehensive and systematic review of the literature suggested that SHGs have positive effects on various dimensions of women’s empowerment, including economic, social, and political empowerment ranging from 0.06-0.41 standardized mean differences.
We did not find evidence for positive effects of SHGs on psychological empowerment. The synthesis of the women’s experiences reported in the qualitative research further suggests that the positive effects of SHGs on economic, social, and political empowerment run through the channels of familiarity with handling money and independence in financial decision making, solidarity, improved social networks, and respect from the household and other community members. Our integration of the quantitative and qualitative evidence indicates that SHGs do not have adverse consequences for domestic violence.