Economic self-help group programs for improving women’s empowerment: a systematic review

Publication Details

Brody, C, De Hoop, T, Vojtkova, M, Warnock, R, Dunbar, M, Murthy, P and Dworkin, SL, 2016. Economic self-help group programmes for improving women’s empowerment: a systematic review, 3ie Systematic Review 23. London: International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie).

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Carinne Brody, Thomas de Hoop, Martina Vojtkova, Ruby Warnock, Megan Dunbar, Padmini Murthy, Shari Dworkin
East Asia and Pacific (includes South East Asia), South Asia, Europe and CIS, Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean
Multisector, Social Protection, Finance
Microfinance, Community Driven Development, Social Assistance
Equity Focus
Review Type
Effectiveness review

Main findings

Headline Findings: a summary statement

The review found that women’s economic SHGs have a positive, statistically significant effect on women’s empowerment including economic, social and political these ranged from 0.06-0.41 SD. The review did not find statistically significant effects for SHGs on psychological empowerment. 

Evidence Base

The review included 23 quantitative and 11 qualitative studies. Of the 23 quantitative studies 18 are located in South Asia, one in East Asia and Pacific, three in Sub-Saharan Africa and one in Latin America and the Caribbean. Geographical locations of the 11 qualitative studies include nine in South Asia, one in Latin America and the Caribbean, and one in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Of the quantitative studies nine are observational studies with cross sectional data; five are observational studies with panel data; three are repeated cross section cluster randomized control trials; two are cross sectional observational studies; one is a repeated cross section cluster randomized control trial; one a observational study with cross sectional and recall data; one a cluster randomized control trial with cross sectional data; and one a cluster randomized control trial with panel data.  Thematic focus of these studies includes economic empowerment, political empowerment, social empowerment, and psychological empowerment. 

Implications for further research

Future research should consider the current gap in rigorous quantitative studies that can correct for selection bias, spillovers, and the difficulties measuring empowerment. The review finds that included studies did not effectively account for selection bias and overestimated empowerment from SHGs. Future research should use new measurements that adequately encapsulate empowerment. It should further use mediator and moderator analysis in examining the impact of economic SHGs on women’s empowerment to gain better understanding of the causal chain through by which SHGs impact empowerment.


Women experience a greater share of poverty due to societal and structural barriers that manifest in reduced access to education, health-care, democratic freedoms, land-ownership, and business loans. Self-help groups (SHSs), otherwise known as mutual aid or support groups, have been implemented to address this inequality.  In such groups people meet with a specific purpose, and are expected to support one-another. These groups meet with the aim of generating social and economic empowerment by providing financial savings or credit, or social capital enabling their ability to effect and implement change within their own lives.  Economic SHSs often start with generating group savings in order to provide intra-group lending, these groups may develop to take larger loans from banks. Training may be a key component of other SHGs ranging from education to business development, rights to political participation and justice. Both economic and social engagement in SHGs is anticipated to facilitate the ability to overcome barriers both individually or as a group. 

Research objectives

The first objective of the review is to use quantitative evidence to examine the impact of women’s economic SHGs on empowerment at an individual level in low- and middle- income countries. Using evidence from high quality qualitative evaluations the review aims in a secondary case to consider the perspectives of participants on their experiences of empowerment as part of a SHG. By utilizing evidence from both quantitative and qualitative studies the review aims to further develop the theory of change on how economic SHGs impact women’s personal empowerment.   


Authors included quantitative studies with experimental designs using random assignment and quasi-experimental designs with non-random assignment to evaluate the impact of women’s economic SHGs on four types of empowerment including: economic, political, physiological and social in low- and middle-income countries. Authors also included outcomes exploring potential negative impacts of SHGs these include intimate partner violence, stigma, disappointment, and reduced subjective well-being.  Authors also included qualitative studies that considered women’s empowerment for the perspective of participants in economic SHGs, these studies include in-depth interviews, ethnography and focus groups.  Authors included studies that were conducted between 1980 and January 2014, reported in any language, on interventions where female participants physically came together to receive collective finance or enterprise, or received a group based livelihood intervention. Included studies evaluated interventions that were women’s SHGs, or where participants of SHGs were primarily limited to women, or where studies included separate analysis for the impact of SHGs on women. The authors included published and unpublished grey literature; the search strategy included electronic data bases, relevant journals and organization websites, key word hand searches were conducted and recommendation requests were made to key personnel. Databases used in the search strategy include: PubMed; IndMed; POPLINE; Index Medicus for the WHO; Social Sciences Citation Index; International Bibliography of the Social Sciences; British Library of Development Studies; Joint libraries of WB and IMF; 3ie Database of Impact Evaluations; Econlit; and Africabib. The search was conducted between March 2013 – February 2014. The quality of included quantitative studies was assessed using an adaption of the risk of bias tool developed by 3ie (Hombrados & Waddington, 2012). Qualitative studies were assessed for quality using the 9-item Critical Appraisal Skills Programme Qualitative Research Checklist (CASP, 2013). Following inclusion, two team members extracted information from both qualitative and quantitative studies using a pre-piloted data extraction form, data was summarized in a table.  Authors synthesized quantitative effects in meta-analysis and used meta-synthesis methods with qualitative data from qualitative studies.  The finding of the qualitative synthesis were integrated with those from the quantitative synthesis to assess how SHGs impact women’s empowerment.   

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