©Gates Archive/Mansi Midha
Women and girls in low-and middle-income countries continue to face societal and structural barriers related to education, employment, and health status that limit their opportunities and well-being. For example, only 27% of women in India participate in the labor force, compared with almost 79% of men. Women are also overrepresented among those without bank accounts; in India and Kenya, more than 60% of unbanked adults are women. As a result, women in developing economies are less likely than men to save money and to have emergency funds available.
Women in developing countries also face multiple social barriers: 50% of women in Uganda, 39% in Kenya, and 29% in India face lifetime physical or sexual intimate partner violence. Maternal mortality also remains a significant challenge in many Sub-Saharan countries; in 2015, one in 13 pregnant women in Nigeria faced a lifetime risk of maternal death.
To counter these challenges, governments, development agencies, and nongovernmental organizations have invested in different types of women’s empowerment collectives (WECs), including economic self-help group programs and women’s groups practicing participatory learning and action. For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Gender Equality team has invested in multiple forms of WECs in South Asia and East Africa to advance women’s empowerment and well-being.
To achieve their goals, the foundation and policymakers need a credible evidence base. A systematic review suggests that economic self-help group programs can improve women’s economic, social, and political empowerment, but there are gaps in the evidence base:
- Impact evaluations provide only limited documentation on the types or functioning of WEC intervention models. This information would affect improvements in the implementation of government-supported women’s collectives.
- The evidence base on the effects and cost-effectiveness of WECs could be broader and more rigorous. For example, it is critical to obtain more evidence about the differences in effects across WEC models and sectors; the pathways through which WECs can improve women’s empowerment, socioeconomic, and health outcomes; factors that moderate their effects; and their cost-effectiveness relative to alternative programs.
- The definition of women’s empowerment, and approaches to achieving it, have been inconsistent across collectives. It will be important to develop and apply measures for empowerment and socioeconomic, health, and agricultural outcomes that are specific to WECs.
- Evidence syntheses have surfaced a wide range of quantitative and qualitative studies on WECs (although primarily on self-help groups) but very few rigorous mixed-methods studies.
©Gates Archive/Mansi Midha
To address these evidence gaps, AIR and the Population Council will co-lead a research consortium with the Evans School of Public Policy Analysis and Research Group at the University of Washington and Stanford University. Supported by the Gender Equality team of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, this consortium will conduct a four-year study on WECs in India and sub-Saharan Africa. The consortium’s primary goal is to generate rigorous empirical evidence on how WECs can contribute to achieving gender equality goals.
This work can be broken down into three separate but interlinked streams:
- Portfolio evaluation of the foundation’s investments in women’s empowerment collectives. These data will enable the consortium to build a preliminary evidence base on the taxonomy, theories of change, effects, and cost-effectiveness of WECs.
- Evidence and evaluation anchor for the foundation’s Gender Equality team. The consortium will provide ongoing technical assistance to the Gender Equality team and its evaluation partners in India and East Africa. In the initial stages, this will focus on ensuring that evaluation teams adopt best practices in measurement and broadly share lessons learned.
- Strengthening the global evidence base and community of practice on women’s collectives. The project will combine evidence syntheses with primary quantitative analyses to determine the effects and cost-effectiveness of WECs and strategies to inform future investments in the collectives.