Menu Close
27 Apr, 2023

Self-help groups shifting gender norms for women’s political empowerment in India

[The article is written by Akhil Neelam with editing support from Sakshi Hallan and Sugandha Parmar]

The peer-reviewed pilot study titled Friendships, Networks and Solidarity: Women’s Political Participation through Self-Help Group Memberships by Centre for Gender And Politics (CGAP) attempted to find evidence for how Self-Help Groups (SHGs) in India are aiding the political empowerment of women at the grassroots. The study found that, over the years, government efforts and nonprofits’ role in empowering women in SHGs positively impacted women joining politics and delivering local governance.

An SHG is usually a group of 10-20 women from similar socio-economic backgrounds. Under National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), the national government promotes over 80 lakh SHGs, having over 8.4 crore women across India. These groups have become avenues to promote livelihood opportunities and strengthen women’s roles in communities. Through CGAP’s work, we also anecdotally understood that, increasingly, SHG women are entering politics, especially at the local governance level.

As women enter political spaces, gender norms can create barriers to women’s political leadership and limit their participation in public life. While our study did not explicitly explore the evolution of social norms, we did observe significant shifts that influenced the representation of women in politics and the norms established by women leaders. In this article, I will delve further into these observations from a social norms perspective.

As part of CGAP’s pilot study, in-depth qualitative interviews were held with 12 Elected Women Representatives (EWRs) and election contestants who were part of SHGs across 4 states. Additionally, 5 stakeholder interviews were conducted with nonprofit professionals working with SHG women for several years.

Social Networks and Participation in Public Spaces

Women’s access to public spaces is often limited in rural areas; many are restricted to family events, agriculture and labour. This further contributes to a lack of engagement in political discourses and engagement.

In this study, thanks to SHGs, our participants reported that they could interact with women of other villages, officials of local governments, become politically aware and contest elections. 10 out of the 12 participants revealed that they initially had no public social life before the SHG was formed; they mainly stepped out of the house to attend to the field or the animals. Only after they joined the SHG did they have a public social space to go to. In the interviews with our participants from Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, when the participants were asked what their lives were like before the SHG was formed, they said that the mobility they have now was beyond their imagination. “We could leave our home. Our horizons expanded. We now sit with the women of other villages. We can go out and interact more, I don’t think I would have been in this position without the help of the SHG”, a participant said.

Through gradually attending Panchayat meetings, discussing civic issues, and expressing their demands and concerns in political forums, SHGs have helped to redefine gender norms in terms of public engagement for our participants.

Gender Norms In Domestic Spaces

Our study showed that SHGs had also impacted social norms in our participants’ domestic spaces. While changing traditional norms around caregiving was undoubtedly challenging, our participants reported gaining greater intra-household bargaining power due to their involvement in SHGs.  For a participant, being part of an SHG and having a certain level of education enabled her to develop the confidence to approach her family and talk about participating in politics. She also revealed that her husband helped her fill out the form for her candidature. The resistance she faced was from the women in her household. She needed to ensure that she fulfilled her domestic responsibilities as a caregiver to earn her way out.

For most of our respondents, families were supportive of their political journeys. Few found themselves empowered to negotiate with their families to navigate through the social norm of caregiving. For this, they are sanctioned with a double burden. On the one hand, their mobility and access increased, but on the other, their predetermined domestic gender roles did not change.

Despite these challenges, it’s crucial to recognise that the shift in social norms occurred in a way that led families to accept and support women’s public social lives and political journeys.

Gender Norms in Public Leadership

Public leadership positions are typically held by men, while women are primarily responsible for domestic duties. However, our study revealed that participation in an SHG empowered our participants to challenge this norm and provided them with mutual support in a male-dominated space. By coming together, they gained greater agency and influence in decision-making, which allowed them to assert their presence and contribute to public life.

During our study, we asked all participants if they attended Panchayat meetings regularly, and all responded with a resounding yes. One participant from Gujarat, who had recently been elected as a ward member, noted that she received information about meeting times and agendas ahead of time, while another participant shared that she took the initiative to call meetings herself. Such control over the timing of meetings illustrates a sense of ownership over public spaces. When asked how she made herself heard in the Panchayat, one participant from Gujarat explained that she would simply pull her chair to the center of the room and sit on it, demonstrating her confidence in working for the people. She remarked, “They know I am working for the people. You just need to have ‘aatma vishwas’ (self-confidence).”

In spaces that have been traditionally male-dominated, women acquiring skills such as public speaking, stakeholder engaging and mobilising, and knowledge on government and policy matters by being part of SHGs empowered them to take on public leadership roles.


While our pilot study indicated that Self Help Groups have positively shifted some gender norms for our participants, it is essential to note that contextual complexities are involved. For some elected women, caregiving responsibilities were eased, but it became a double burden for some participants. The study presented a foundational understanding of how networking and skills gained through SHGs helped our participants navigate some gender norms. Further research into probing how Self Help Groups are shaping women’s political careers from a norms perspective and how these women are challenging and shifting gender norms in their local contexts is recommended.

Author’s bio

Akhil Neelam is the Co-founder and Director of Centre for Gender And Politics (CGAP), a think tank working towards gender-inclusive politics in South Asia. He is a member of South Asia Social Norms Learning Collaborative (SA-SNLC). He tweets @akhilneelam.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Centre for Social and Behaviour Change (CSBC), Ashoka University

The Centre for Social and Behaviour Change is a leading Indian institution that drives behavioural change measures for people and communities in need.

Project Concern International (PCI), India

Project Concern International, India has been working since 1998 to co-create and scale sustainable solutions to complex development problems rooted in community realities .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *