Motivation: Self-help groups (SHGs) are implemented around the world to empower women, supported by many developing country governments and agencies. A relatively large number of studies purport to demonstrate the effectiveness of SHGs. This is the first systematic review of that evidence.
Approach: We conducted a systematic review of the effectiveness of women’s economic SHG programs, incorporating evidence from quantitative and qualitative studies. We systematically searched for published and unpublished literature, and applied inclusion criteria based on the study protocol. We critically appraised all included studies and used a combination of statistical meta-analysis and metaethnography to synthesize the findings based on a theory of change.
Findings from quantitative synthesis: Our review suggests that economic SHGs have positive effects on various dimensions of women’s empowerment, including economic, social, and political empowerment. However, we did not find evidence for positive effects of SHGs on psychological empowerment. Our findings further suggest there are important variations in the impacts of SHGs on empowerment that are associated with program design and contextual characteristics.
Findings from qualitative synthesis: Women’s perspectives on factors determining their participation in, and benefits from, SHGs suggest various pathways through which SHGs could achieve the identified positive impacts. Evidence suggested 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. In contrast to the quantitative evidence, the qualitative synthesis suggests that women participating in SHGs perceive themselves to be psychologically empowered. Women also perceive low participation of the poorest of the poor in SHGs due to various barriers, which could potentially limit the benefits the poorest could gain from SHG membership.
Findings from integrated synthesis: Our integration of the quantitative and qualitative evidence suggests there is no evidence for adverse effects of women’s SHGs on the likelihood of domestic violence. Women’s perspectives in the qualitative research indicate that even if domestic violence occurs in the short term, in the long term the benefits from SHG membership may mitigate the initial adverse consequences of SHGs on domestic violence.