Women’s Empowerment and Sustainable Development through self help Groups: A tale of Select States of India

 Abstract: Self Help Groups (SHGs) are a blend of non-governmental organisations and groups of individuals organised together for tackling problems such as unemployment, medical issues, watershed management and livelihood generation. SHG formations largely include women as they are considered to be more credit worthy than men. While globalisation poses great threats to employment and livelihoods, making globalisation work for the world’s poor is the greatest moral challenge to our generation. In this context, it is worthwhile to analyse SHG activities which facilitated with the help of micro-credit in attaining sustainable growth through empowerment in various states of India.

 Keywords: women’s development, sustainable development, economic development, NGOs, SHGs, women’s economic empowerment, Five Year Plan, self-employed women, self sustained economic growth, economic activities

The rights and privileges of women are enshrined in the Constitution of India, Preamble of Fundamental Rights, Fundamental Duties and the Directive Principles of State Policy. Article 14 of the constitution provides equal rights and opportunities for men and women in all spheres of public life viz. Social, economic and political. Article 15 (3) confers provision for affirmative discrimination for women with a view to improve their status in society. The National Commission for Women (NCW) was setup in 1990, by an Act of Parliament, to safeguard the rights and legal entitlements of women. Despite constitutional provisions, women continue to remain underprivileged and under-represented group in various fields. A similar situation prevails in different parts of the world till date. This has led to a growing awareness amongst social activist groups across the world to take steps to neutralise the ill-effects of gender based discrimination. A slow and steady change is taking place, however, the full impact of the measures undertaken by the various agencies is yet to fructify. The benefits of fire measures are yet to trickle down to the lowest strata of society.

This points towards the discriminatory practices with regard to gender difference and how some of these can be ameliorated, so as to attain sustainable development of the economy, by empowerment of women.

Empowerment of Women

Empowerment of women in the most basic sense implies strengthening the resource base of women – viz. financial, social, educational, skill based and others, so as to take on the challenges of discrimination and to bridge the gap between men and women. A good indicator of empowerment is the ease with which women can gain entry into the main-stream institutions, networks, economic, social and political processes.

In another context, empowerment enables the poor and the underprivileged to take up economic activities with very modest growth potential and uncertain future prospects with a view to alleviate poverty and to improve standard of living. This is possible by enabling women to acquire the capacity of upward mobility while demanding the rights and privileges conferred upon them by the Constitution of India. According to Reddy (2002), there are four processes  involved in empowering. They are, growth in people’s awareness and confidence, ability to articulate problems, gaining access to resources as well as public facilities, and negotiating over relations between different social groups. Empowerment of women needs basic structural changes in society. Only a handful of talented and resourceful amongst them manage to cross the threshold of empowerment and enrich their lives. The remaining are confined to the lower echelons of society. However, this can be changed with the help of governmental agencies and other non-governmental organisations using methods of empowerment.

Empowerment helps the target groups in articulating their views about the rest of the world and in changing their perspective about the world thereby 

 providing them self reliance and economic independence. ‘This in turn, leads to a kind of chain reaction thereby improving social, economic and demographic indicators of the nation. Empowerment also leads to better quality of decision making by the target population in various spheres of activities. The Government of India announced its program in the new millennium and declared 2001 as the Women’s Empowerment Year so that women are treated like equal partners with the men.

Economic Empowerment

Economic empowerment includes employment generation, poverty elimination, effortsto develop organisational and managerial skills, development of entrepreneurship skills, and access to various socio-economic institutions which act as tools for enhancing their status in society. It also involves elimination of certain inequalities, which include house-hold inequality, economic and political inequality, social and educational inequality. It also aims at removing the exploitation and alienation. Attainment of economic empowerment is that state where the woman finds herself equipped to stand against all odds impinged upon her by the outer world (Soundari and Sudhi, 2003). Discrimination and denial of education of girls stands in the way of improving employment prospects and life expectancy. 

There has been a perceptible change in the government’s approach to women’s issues from welfare to development starting from the Fifth Five Year plan (1974-78). In recent years, the emphasis has shifted to attainment of sustainable development. However it was in the Sixth Five Year Plan document that a separate chapter was dedicated to women.

Glaring Inequalities Linked to Gender Differences

Analysis of empowerment necessitates a broad overview of the state of Indian women in different spheres of life. According to Human Development sport (2001), India ranks 105th in Gender related Development Index(GDI) d 95th in gender empowerment measures. According to 2001 census, women lterates constitute 54.16 percent of the total literates whereas that of men amount Io 75.85 percent. Adult literacy rate as a percentage of people 15 years and above constitute 43 percent. The percent of women in government at ministerial level is 10. 1 while the female economic activity is 42 percent of the total economic activity. Tables 1. 1 and 1.2 elaborate the male-female disparity existing in the Current Daily Status of unemployment among youth (age 15-29 years) and the declining sex-ratios in select states of India such as Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka. Maharashtra and Orissa.

Table 1.1: Current Daily Status – Unemployment Rate Among Youth



Unemployment Rate (% of Labour Force) Persons




Andhra Pradesh




















All India




Source: Extracted from the document of Tenth Five Year Plan (2002-7)

 Table 1.2: Sex Ratio of Select States (1901-2001)



Andhra Pradesh



















































































Source: Govt. of India, various Census Reports

The progress in fields of health and nutrition has not helped the improvement in Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) which remains at 410 per 1 lakh births, and under 5 Mortality Rate remains as 88 per l lakh.(World Bank,2003). These statistics reveal the disparities in the field of literacy, employment, health and hygiene.

Boserup (1970) described the gender inequality in terms of institutional barriers that limit women’s productive capacity and competitive position in the market. According to her, traditional value victimising women was the reason behind subsistence based product ion. Rogers shared Boserup’s commitment to market competition as the means for increasing gender equity. Boserup and Rogers were of the view that women’s status can be improved through participation in market based activities.

Studies of women’s resistance and intra household bargaining have brought out stark realities. Sen (1990) is of the view that patriarchal system is instrumental in limiting the decision making power of women as well as their opportunities in various fields. Only the availability of credit coupled with new skills and training would transform subsistence and non wage relations into marketable skills in par with men.

Sustainable Development

The concept of economic development is referred to an increase in output of goods and services of an economy over a period of time. There are two ways of representing development viz. the total output produced in the economy and capita output. Through SHG activities, we aim at increasing per capita output so that there will be some surplus to save and invest for the betterment in the low living standards of the people. By raising the productive capacity of the r, the total output of the economy increases. It should be accompanied by technological changes. This concept goes beyond the increase in output and changes in economic structure. lt emphasises such changes so as to create conducive growth of the economy, by seeking techniques for progressive improvement of the poor and the socially disadvantaged. Such changes are   to the developing countries like India to attain self sustained growth. By combining together various strands of thought, sustained development may be summed up in the following words. Sustained development is that state of development which include improvements in material welfare especially for with the lowest incomes eradication of mass poverty, with its correlates of illiteracy, disease and early death; changes in the composition of inputs and outputs that generally include shifts in the underlying structure of production away from agricultural activities towards industrial activities; the organisation of the economy in such a way that productive employment is general among the productive age-group rather than the situation of a privileged minority; and the correspondingly greater participation of broadly based groups in decision making so as to improve their welfare.(World Bank, 2003).

According to Najma Heptulla (2000) one of the critical areas of concern is development of an institutional mechanism for advancement of women under the strategic objective ‹if integrating gender perspective in legislation, public policies. programs and projects. It necessitates regular review to ensure that women are direct beneficiaries of development and their full contribution to development, both remunerative e and non-remunerative is considered in economic policy and planning. It is possible only by improving women’s social status, their education, their participation in economic activity and improving their decision making capacity. Only steadfast and massive mobilisation of women brings in radical change in their attitude and creation of a positive outlook by enhancing their status through education, health care, scientific   vision and cultural innovations.

Through SHGs, a change of basic importance occurs by improving the production of resources and improving in human capital which is made possible through the availability of ample credit facilities . It results in the upgradation of labour skills, advancement on scientific and technological fronts and modernisation of people’s attitude. The transformation of the economy to sell sustaining stage induces permanent changes in the standard of living of people. These take the form of high standard of consumption and reduced income inequality. This has far reaching implications for the economic objectives such as increase in real per capita income, improvement in distribution of income, freedom for decision making and finally equitable access to resources of the economy for both the sexes. Bartelmus (1997) defines sustainable development ‘as a set of development programs that meets the targets of human needs and satisfaction without violating long term natural resource capacities and standards of environmental qualities and social equity’. Sustainable development has now been accepted as a supreme goal of humanity all over the world. Sustained development will also critically depend upon continued sound micro economic policy to encourage more efficient resource use and increased economic participation on the part of women in decision making and employment, thereby improving their status. Now that the world increasingly is heading towards a knowledge based global economy, the sustenance of development will be possible only through ability to harness resources, not merely possessing them. The sustainability of economic reforms has not to be visualised only in terms of positive developments in the macro economic variable. In fact, sustainability of the economy)’ now means bridging the male female gap existing in various spheres of economic activity.

Rationale of SHGs

SHGs are a blend of non-governmental organisations and groups of individuals organised together for a meaningful economic purpose. SHGs are formed by small groups of persons to tackle problems such as unemployment, medical issues, livelihood generation, and watershed management with a will of togetherness to attain self sufficiency, women would collectively undertake economic activities for skill and resource foundation by actively evolving in the development process with a social mobilisation approach. A number of social issues including gender and family, child labour, disability and health, relating to poverty alleviation are sorted out with the help of SHGs. SHG formations largely include women members as women are considered to be more creditworthy than men. With the help of folk theatre, family issues with regard to gender disparity, such as gender divide related to household labour, son preference, relationship between another-in -law and daughter-in-law are brought into the minds of family members.

The women who are below poverty line and who face situations of extreme poverty are benefited through SHGs. 10-20 persons of the same social strata who share a common ideology are encouraged to form SHGs for mobilising small deposits. This deposit is linked with a savings bank account at a bank. In due course, the bank provides loans to the group as per their requirement. Loans are provided for undertaking commercial activities and for consumption of poor households. This way, micro credit now reaches over 10 million members of various savings and credit groups, nearly 90 percent of whom are women (IFAD, 2002, Kelkar et.al 2004). This reportedly has improved women’s livelihood and reduced their ill-treatment and dependence on men. 

SHGs involve thrift as well as credit arrangements. NABARD and SIDBI have provided for SHG members capacity building through training and other input by NGOs. The outcomes have gone beyond thrift credit and economic benefits. lt has served as an instrument of social change essentially out of the empowerment of women. Improvement in literacy levels and education, particularly girls education, housing facilities, abolition of child labour, decline in family violence and banning of illicit distilleries have been reported in different studies. Women have acquired better communication skills and self-confidence, they have also acquired better status within families (Radhakrishna et.al.2004).

NABARD’s programs, linking banks and SHGs is considered to be the largest micro-savings and micro credit program as it has to cater to the needs of 5 lakh SHGs and 40 million rural poor. It aims at providing sustainable access to the financial needs of the poor. Average loan sises are Rs 3,240 per SHG and Rs.1,300 per member. By 2008, it is expected to cover a population of 100 million which is approximately 33 percent of India’s rural poor.

Globalisation and SHGs

Globalisation is considered as the panacea for the economic ills of the world. The free Row of’ capital, labour, goods and information without state intervention is acclaimed to be the path toward world prosperity promoted by various regional as well as world organisations . In the last decade, the recent tide of globalisation compelled countries to renegotiate their approach to development, a process that shifted national economic planning from import substitution and agricultural self -sufficiency to strategies of comparative advantage and export led growth. In the meantime, it was felt that the negative effects could be diluted by special programmes for women and children until economic equilibrium could once again be realised (Cornia et al. 1987). Despite the problems entailed in this analysis the discussions nonetheless linked the costs of economic reorganisation directly to poverty, motherhood and the privatisation of welfare institutions (Cornia et al. l987;Bakkar, 1994).

UK Government’s White paper namely, ‘Making Globalisation Work for the Poor’ recognises that globalisation creates new opportunities for sustainable development and poverty reduction. The paper is of the view that ‘there is no alternative to globalisation and we should team to live with it’. But the paper also admits that globalisation poses great threats to employment and livelihoods, to the environment and human security in general. It argues finally that ‘making globalisation work for the world’s poor is the greatest moral challenge facing our generation’.  The paper however, does not advocate intervention of the governments in the interests of equity and justice for the the benefits of globalisation will not automatically reach poor people (Govt.of U.K,2001 ). Therefore, remedy to this challenge was perceived in decentralisation of local development and grass root initiatives that focused attention on the plight of the excluded – the rural landless, the urban poor and women and shift in development discourse to ‘meeting basic needs’. Thus dramatic changes in power relations brought out by the globalisation of financial and labour market and by critical reinterpretations of modernity provide fertile ground for rethinking changing gender relations and development practices in the third world (Feldman, 1998).

This resulted in a significant departure from earlier researches with regard to women’s development in the 1990s. Earlier, women’s unequal status was attributed to their lack of access to resources, their firm limited skills. traditional cultural practices and their relationship to patriarchal household structures. In the 1990s, scholars recognised that women bear the unequal burden of reduction in social expenditure caused by introducing economic restructuring and social dislocation and concluded that these costs are not temporary (Elson, 1990, 1992; Feldman, 1992; Bakkar, 1994).

Functioning of SHGs in India

At this juncture, it will be worthwhile to examine the role played by SHGs in attaining self sustained growth through empowerment in various states of India.

Andhra Pradesh

In one of India’s poorest states, namely Andhra Pradesh, SHGs have been gainfully utilised for poverty alleviation and empowerment. SHG activities are basically transacted through micro credit so as to bring poor out of poverty. Various independent support organisations and NGOs have been assisting the growth of SHGs since 1979. With this, the state could mobilise more than 4.8 million  women into SHG activities. Self managed grass root level institutions have been federated into village level and sub district level groups. Federation of SHGs powerfully bring out issues pertaining to social and economic needs of the masses. SIHGs in Andhra Pradesh provide capacity building through participatory training methods, book keeping, financial management and assist to develop skills to establish linkages with banks and other institutions. As a result, informal savings are integrated to the banking system by improving their credit worthiness.

VELUGU is a state sponsored programme for the upliftment of the poor. The programme is operational in more than 660 mandals in 22 districts with the aim of reaching 2.9 million rural poor. VELUGU supports two schemes such  as Community Investment Fund (CIF) and Comprehensive Insurance Package (CIP). CIF provides investments in sub-projects for the poor while CIP ensures development of community based delivery of life and health insurance services. In order to take care of the food problem of the poor, rice credit line is operating under the auspices of SHGs in the state. ‘though the members belong to‹› the poorest financial strata of society and have negligible savings potential, their propensity to save has gone up several folds thanks to the efforts of SHGs. Women are encouraged to take up economic activities and new occupations by diversifying to non-agricultural activities (World Bank, 2003).

SHGs are also functioning in ihe areas of improving the quality of life by improving the nutritional and health standards of women and children, through kitchen gardens and consumption of better food. It is also noticed that food security of members improved after participating in groups. Progress has been achieved in school enrolment, attendance, drainage and toilet facilities and accessibility to gas and electricity. VELUGU addresses child labour and high drop out rates in schools. VELUGU helps to solve issues such as problems of disabled, primary healthcare of the members and their communities (World Bank, 2003).However more needs to be done in this area.

However, SHGs in AP suffer from certain drawbacks. Gender poverty measured in terms of gender bias in norms of eating, male preference in distribution of food and access to clothing has not narrowed down. Problems like caste taboos, dowry, consumption of alcohol and drug abuse are yet to be addressed in a significant manner. Empowerment has to be attained by further improvement of education, health, housing and provision of infrastructural facilities (World Bank, 2003)


Women’s wing of the Textile Labour Association (TLA) Ahmedabad conducted a study about self employed women in 1970. The study found that they have insecure employment, low earnings and no support for the work which they perform. It also brought out the exploitation meted out to them, lack of organised trade unionism, absence of government regulations and policies. As a result, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) came into existence in December 197.1 and was registered as a trade union in April 1972 by organising the women to inculcate savings habits. Following this, women’s wing of TLA assisted women to acquire expertise in sewing. knitting, embroidery, spinning, press composition, typing and stenography. SEWA bank was the first sue h bank established in 1974 for the upliftment of the poor and self employed women, who included hawkers, vendors and home based workers, so as to provide credit at reasonable rates to empower them. SEWA started with security insurance scheme and a housing programme and expanded its activities in the rural areas through savings and credit groups. SEWA Bank lends money to its members for 3 purposes such as (i) for working capital, (ii) for work tools, and (iii) for housing. With the efforts of SEWA, 400 plots of land are in women’s names. SEWA helped women to build their own water structures such  as well s, ponds and hand pumps in dry land areas. SEWA could form 200 savings groups for 8 districts of Gujarat. As a result the members came out of the clutches of private money lenders by developing the skills of dealing with formal organisations, thereby enhancing their confidence. Middlemen were avoided in dealings. As a result, women’s bargaining power improved considerably and they could form their own cooperatives. Women could earn higher income and get control over their own incomes. Most of the women could form hand carts, sewing machines, looms, carpentry and blacksmithy tools to work with. This achievement is praiseworthy especially when only 1 percent of the world’s assets are in the name of women according to ILO estimates. The poor women could acquire control over natural and financial resources. They could acquire skills to support themselves. They could thus enhance their quality of life by solving the problem of livelihood and shelter.


Bidar is a remote backward village in Karnataka with a population of 1.4 million in 600 villages and 300 hamlets. Only 10 percent of cultivated land is irrigated, 52 percent of 2,80,000 families are below poverty line. 30 percent belong to socially disadvantaged categories. District Coop Central Bank (DCCB) started SHG  banking in 1996. By March 2002, a total of 6,900 SHGs were established in Bidar district comprising about 1 lakh members from poor families. 5005 SHGs had opened savings accounts with DCCB and 3005 had been credit linked. Among the SHG promoting agencies, NGOs are the most active organisers of SHGs in Bidar district.

38 percent of the families in the district and 72 percent of poor families are SHG members with access to financial services. SHG banking is considered the main factor in the turnaround of primary cooperatives from loss making entities into profit making ones. However, SHGs in Karnataka could generate self confidence and self discipline among women resulting in a more active personal and family life. It paved way for empowerment of women who are increasingly involved in community development programs and local politics. It could prevent social evils such as child marriage, child labour, dowry and prevent harassment of women by changing people’s attitudes. (Seibel.2002).


Indira Swayam Sahayta Gut trom Nyahale Khurd village in Jawahar Taluka in Thane district took a leading role in empowering women and making them self reliant. As a result, Dr Mani Bhai Desai Gaurav Puraskar was conferred on it in 2001 for its significant progress in community development programs (Indian Express,2001) .Various SHG programs in the state are aimed at taking care of 5 lakh women to be economically self reliant over a period of 11 years. Swarnjayanti Gram  Swarozgar Yojana(SGSY) is a new programme initiated during Tenth Plan (2002-7) to help the formation of SHGs through empowerment of panchayats and involvement of women and weaker sections in decision making and implementation process (Govt of India,2003). Dahanu, Talasari, Jawahar and Vikramgarh are the talukas in Thane district where the activities of SHGs are concentrated. SHGs involve themselves in various commercial activities such as sale of vegetables, sarees, fish, irrigation and animal husbandry. Different banks like Bank of Maharashtra, Thane District Central Coop Bank and the Thane Grameen Bank finance SHGs. Out of the total of 365 SHGs financed, 268 were functioning, and 41 had stopped functioning. Das (2000) is of the view that the traditional local women’s organisations, known as mahila mandals, had tremendous potential to solve women’s problems in rural areas by improving the economic opportunities for women through their organisational power. The experience has shown that more than 90 percent of the SHGs have been repaying loans regularly. The Poor could become better off as they began saving money. Though Maharashtra is a state where hub of the industrial activities is concentrated, infrastructural problems like rural electrification, lack of irrigation facilities, improper roads and non-availability of cheap transport are the factors hindering development. Tie  up arrangements with NGOs and other institutions will help to solve marketing and other problems relating to administrative, legal and regulatory matters.


In the eastern state of Orissa, an NGO, namely Adhikar, started its operation in 1999 with a goal to reach out to 2000 families in 60 villages by establishing 150 SHGs and have inculcated financial discipline. The SHGs were founded with the aim of manifestation of upliftment of the socially disadvantaged people in the community. The objectives included minimising socio-economic exploitation, promoting entrepreneurial qualities, acquiring self employment and to provide services for securing financial assistance. The organisation strives for integrated community development through women’s empowerment in 4 tribal and 7 Gram Panchayat cluster areas of Khurda and Nayagarh districts.

Orissa has been affected by frequent national disasters viz floods ,cyclonic storms and famines, Adhikar could be actively associated with flood relief and development efforts in Orissa. Loans were provided for starting small scale enterprises for women in villages. As saving habits are not so predominant amongst rural poor women, they are encouraged to save money from their weekly earnings. Inspired by this, 2000 women have joined SHG activities and could undertake rehabilitation efforts(AID,2002).

Policy Implications

Formation of SHGs should be encouraged and the availability of micro credit should be assured for the empowerment of women.

To overcome the hindrances in socio economic development of women such as illiteracy, poverty, low standard of living, lack of employment opportunities and resistance to change. An integrated and balanced development oriented policy may be adopted. In order to ensure participation of women in economic activities, it should be ensured that the benefits of training, extension and various programs reach them in proportion to their number. The training programs for women in soil conservation, social forestry, dairy development and other occupations allied to agriculture, horticulture, livestock including small animal husbandry, poultry, fisheries etc. shall have to be expanded to benefit women workers in agriculture.

Women engaged in primary, secondary and tertiary sectors should be given comprehensive support in terms of labour legislation and social security. Provision of support services for women like child care facilities including training for handling pressures at work place, educational institutions, homes for the aged and disabled have to be expanded and in proved to create an environment to ensure safety.

Equal access to education for women and girls may be ensured by eradicating illiteracy, creating a gender sensitive educational system and decline the drop out rates to increase the enrolment rates of girls.

Quality health care at affordable rate should be provided to women in order to tackle the problems of infant and maternal mortality. Efforts may be made to meet the nutritional needs of women in all stages of life.

Though majority of SHGs are constituted by women members, poverty alleviation can be more sustainable when all members of the family are involved. Encouragement in this regard is vital.


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DOLLY SUNNY. Reader at the Department of Economics, University of Mumbai. She completed her Ph.D. from the University of Mumbai. Has published several articles in various reputed national and international journals. She has published two bokks with publication grant from ICSSR (Ministry of Human Resource Development, New Delhi) and Althaif, Bahrain.

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Reader at the Department of Economics, University of Mumbai. She completed her Ph.D. from the University of Mumbai. Has published several articles in various reputed national and international journals. She has published two bokks with publication grant from ICSSR (Ministry of Human Resource Development, New Delhi) and Althaif, Bahrain.

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