Enabling poor rural people
to overcome poverty



THEME: Social and economic factors can contribute to women's empowerment.

The completion evaluation of the IFAD-supported Tamil Nadu Women's Development Project in India took place in late 1999. The project had aimed to bring about the social and economic betterment of women. The core mechanism was the women's self-help groups, which were set up with both financial (saving and lending) and community action objectives. At the time of the evaluation, a total of 5 207 of these groups had been formed, almost double the established target The evaluation noted that, at least in the latter phases, the project acted not as just "a credit-cum-subsidy project, but as a genuine process of empowerment." The evaluation concluded that such empowerment lay in the interaction between the social and economic aspects of the project.

Four of the main processes that could lead to women's empowerment, as defined by the IFAD evaluation, were:

  • changes in women's mobility and social interaction;
  • changes in women's labour patterns;
  • changes in women's access to and control over resources; and
  • changes in women's control over decision-making.

Changes in women's mobility and interaction. The evaluation found that women had become more mobile and begun to have new interactions with a range of officials. There was even a growing willingness on the part of group members to approach the Panchayats and Collectors with petitions or grievances. In all, the evaluation found that:

  • 50% of women group members had visited new places and travelled longer distances; and
  • 94% had experienced new interactions with staff of institutions such as banks, district and block development organizations, NGOs and the project itself.

The study observes that this type of change was most likely to occur among women group members when:

  • the women involved were heads of households or were older;
  • the women involved had participated in training;
  • their group members had accessed a bank loan;
  • their group had undertaken community action initiatives; or
  • their group had been organized into a federation and encouraged to participate in special events (such as Women's Day, Rural Women's Day)

Changes in women's labour patterns. The evaluation did not find any major changes in gender division of labour. However, there were indications of such changes beginning. For instance, the group meetings themselves forced some of the husbands to look after children and feed themselves while their wives attended the meetings. The evaluation found that the extent to which men helped in reproductive tasks was related to the health of the woman (men helped more if women were sick), the type of household (men helped more in a nuclear household), and the gender and age of the children (men helped less if girl children were present to help).

There was comparatively greater change reported in non-domestic productive tasks. Not all the changes in such labour patterns can be viewed as beneficial to women.

  • Fully 30% of women who had taken bank loans reported a marked change in gender roles, and 70% reported a small change. (Greater change was reported by women heads of households, which implies that changes in the division of labour were not always involved, but that the women themselves adopted new productive roles.)
  • However, the income-generating activities of the majority of women in male-headed households (for which loans had been taken) continued to be managed by men (presumably, the women's husbands).
  • The workload of 94% of the women who had taken loans increased compared with their previous workload (many had been wage labourers).

Therefore, the changes in women's labour patterns were mixed, and not as positive as along other dimensions. There was little indication that women's control over their labour had undergone a marked change, and the evaluation noted that many women may simply have gone from undertaking paid work outside the home to becoming unpaid family labourers (in male-managed enterprises). At least self-employment allows women the possibility to have better working conditions, save on travel time, and be able to more effectively combine reproductive and productive roles.

Changes in access to and control over resources. The evaluation also looked into women group members' access to non-loan-related resources and benefits, and particularly to common resources. It seems that a number of the groups undertook activities that would give their communities better infrastructure or services, for instance in water supply, child-care facilities, health care services and improved roads. In this sense, they played a key role in promoting changes in collective access to resources.

Changes in intra-household decision-making. The evaluation concluded that there seemed to be a slight improvement in women's involvement in household decision-making in male-headed households, on such issues as credit, the disposal of household assets, children's education, and family health care. However, the traditional gender-based divisions persist in intra-household decision-making. Women basically decide on food preparation, and men make the financial decisions. But group members had become more aware of their property and political rights (which was part of group training). As in the case of mobility and social interaction, the evaluation again found greater improvements among women heads of households, older women, and more educated women.

In traditional societies, even more than elsewhere, women's empowerment does not occur easily or overnight. In the India case described, there was evidence of such change beginning, to which the project had apparently contributed. It was most noticeable among certain types of women. Perhaps one of the most important emerging lessons is that women's groups themselves, in their social aspects, play a role in such empowerment. This argues for placing emphasis on sustaining groups beyond the life of the project, which indeed was done in this instance. The project evaluation also recommended that communication support (films, radio broadcasts and so on, with sensitization and training content) be used to speed up the empowerment process.

Adapted from:

IFAD/OE. 2000. The Republic of India: Tamil Nadu Women's Development Project: Completion Evaluation, Report 340-IN. Rome, April.