Guest Articles

June 14

Sudarshan Thakur

The Trouble With ‘Women’s Empowerment’ Programs: Perceptions vs. Reality in India

Editor’s note: This post is part of the NextBillion Series “By Women, For Women: Leaders and Innovations in Gender Equity.” Learn more about our other 2019 series here.


The rhetorical use of “empowerment” in the development discourse started taking shape in the mid 20th century, as a means to challenge power structures for the public good. Since the mid 1990s it has been used profusely across all sectors (including corporations), giving it the nuance of a cliché.

In the same rhetoric, the debate on women empowerment has intensified as a fundamental approach for transforming power relations in favour of women. However, while the term “women empowerment” has been used frequently by policy makers, professionals and academics, there is little clarity as to how it can be achieved.

That’s why, drawing on my experience as a development professional in PRADAN, working with women’s collectives, women leaders, funders, government and programmes, I attempt to revisit the effectiveness of efforts toward women’s empowerment.

Given the ever-increasing focus of government, funders and professionals on including women in various schemes and programmes, it is imperative to make a distinction between programmes that are for women, and women’s empowerment. Because in the present scenario, anything happening with or for women falls under the category of “women’s empowerment.”


Women and Credit

To take one example, including women in leveraging credit is largely postulated on two basic tenets:

  1. Women groups such as Self-Help Groups (SHGs) can be made accountable for utilising the credit and making on-time repayment through exercising peer pressure within the group.
  2. Access to credit leads to an increase in women’s say in decision-making and overall empowerment.

But the above hypotheses consider women as conduits for households to access credit, thereby limiting the scope of the empowering process.

When PRADAN started its team in 2013 in the Kishanganj district in Bihar, the first question asked in the community was what benefits would people get by organising women into SHGs? At the end of one year, our team could promote only 20-odd SHGs, and we faced many obstacles from men, as they were against the idea of allowing women into any collective publicly.

But the year 2015 was different, especially when India’s National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) intensified its operations in the district. There was a tenfold rise in the number of SHGs – and this happened without much of our facilitation. Some of the men who were against the idea of women getting into SHGs started approaching us to start operations in their villages. It was obvious that the monetary benefits assured by NRLM in the form of government schemes, grants and credit persuaded the men – but women were, at best, channels to avail those benefits.


Credit and Empowerment

The model of extending small credits to women’s groups without collateral boosted the SHG movement in India, which has been appropriated by NRLM. Over a period of time, there has been an attempt to establish a connection between access to credit and empowerment for rural women.

The major argument put forward is that there is a lack of opportunity for rural women, owing to the lack of robust credit services; thus they live at subsistence level, and are subservient to household needs. It is further argued that microcredit facilitated through SHGs may help women to engage in income-generating activity, thereby increasing the mobility, confidence and overall status of women.

In all of these arguments, the fundamental assumption is that economic activity for poorer households is primarily dependent on the availability of credit, and credit leverage may help communities to come out of poverty. (It is worth noting that the same amount of credit support to two families having similar economic profile does not mean that the impact of credit would be the same for both families). However, the fact is that the biggest flaw of the credit-centric model is that it does not take into account other factors such as attitude, ability, assurance, assets, cultural aspects and family history.


What makes policy makers and nonprofits think of credit as an empowering mechanism?

The belief in credit as an empowering mechanism stems from the affinity group approach that’s been developed for extending credit to women, which creates the illusion that having women congregating in a group for regular meetings is sufficient to facilitate empowerment.

But there are a lot of cases where men influence loan decisions, while on the surface women seem to be forwarding the application. In fact, helping women to decide and act on their livelihoods is a slow and engaging process. However, flagship programmes like NRLM, operating with a mandate to reach larger geographies, do not look much into the utilisation and management involved in extending loans to women. It is obvious that without engaging with the access and control of household-level benefits, much progress on women’s say in decision-making cannot be made.

Another argument for credit as an empowerment tool is that creating earning opportunities for women will be empowering, and may help women to exert their rights. This seems to be logical, but my experiences here in Kishanganj have been different.

For instance, the Santhal tribe is a scheduled tribe community whose women are predominantly engaged as agricultural labourers, who contribute 30-40% of their household income. Yet they are not free to decide where to go for work, or whom to work for. Those decisions are mostly made by male counterparts, even if they are not physically present in the village. There are many women from rural heartlands who toil as hard as men, but do not enjoy equal rights.

So it raises a big question: If not credit, if not income, then what is the path to empowerment?


Women and Empowerment

It’s not that credit does not create impact in the lives of women: In fact, for many it’s a boon, especially independent farmers and entrepreneurs. Similarly, putting income in the hands of women does have an impact on their confidence. But access to income and credit is a step towards realising equality. This access alone is not a sufficient condition for empowerment. Nevertheless, most of our programmes revolve around these two aspects without considering the social structures we are in.

Another short-sighted view is that empowerment is largely treated as an end goal in itself. This generally leads to a frail strategy, where creating one kind of benefit-driven programme is thought to be empowering. Hence in most cases, policy-makers and workers consider affirmative action as empowering for women.

Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), launched in 2016 by the Government of India, is one of the best examples. No doubt, PMUY – if implemented in a proper way – may reduce the burden of thousands of women and children engaged in collecting firewood. But has it created any change in gender relations at home? The answer is a blunt “no.”

There is a perception that women are the most vulnerable, and so any action for them will be empowering; this is a fallacy. In my experience, people must take it upon themselves to bring change, and in that sense change cannot be intervened. We need to engage with women across different communities and structures, as they themselves are the best judges of their lives and the platforms they need. Once a strong environment in a closed affinity group is created, people tend to forge partnerships to challenge unequal norms. Obviously, SHGs have been looked at as one such mechanism. However, the way it is being promoted – as a vehicle for delivering benefits to the households – may no longer serve the purpose of building such communes of support.



While women collectives, created by NRLM, are a great tool to work on issues faced by women, they are also increasingly used as vehicles to route funds and offer government programmes. Given this, such collectives naturally deviate from women’s issues to the mandate of the government.

When all is said and done, the path leading to empowerment is still long, as gendered identities exist in our values, beliefs and action. There needs to be greater partnership among policy-makers, funders, academics, practitioners and the media to help create an environment of dialogue within communities and within institutions. This kind of partnership must guarantee that there are constitutional arrangements for safeguarding people’s right to speak up and engage in public discourse. Mere laws and provisions are far from sufficient.

Finally, we must ask ourselves: Are development agencies concerned about what women can do for development, or what development can do for women?


Sudarshan Thakur works with PRADAN, a voluntary organization working in endemic poverty regions of India.


This post was originally published on India Development Review (IDR). It is republished with permission.


Photo courtesy of ebayink.




financial inclusion, gender equality, global development, NGOs, nonprofits, public policy