Empowerment vs. Well-being

Does more autonomy mean less happiness for women? An evaluation of the impact of self-help groups in Orissa

October 13, 2011

Speaker: Thomas de Hoop

Self-help groups (SHG) are a popular approach for empowering women in India. The idea is that participation in self-help groups changes attitudes towards traditional gender roles. The attitudinal shift may occur either because participation in the group helps women increase their income or because increased exposure to new ideas in the meetings makes women more aware of their subordinate status. But empowerment often also requires the transgression of gender norms. 

Thomas de Hoop, Evaluation Officer at 3ie and PhD Candidate at the Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands, cites evidence from his research in Orissa, India to show that context makes a difference to the impact self-help groups can have on women’s autonomy and subjective well-being or happiness. His findings from instrumental variable regression analysis indicate positive impacts of SHG membership on women’s autonomy. Findings from Propensity Score Matching show that, on average, SHG membership does not affect subjective well-being. But subjective well-being sharply declines for those self-help group members whose newly gained autonomy meets with relatively conservative gender norms among non-members.

Indepth interviews with people showed that social sanctions by other community members play an important role in the heterogeneous negative impact on women’s subjective well-being For instance, in ‘conservative’ communities a woman going out alone may be met with public disapproval. These results thus point to a potential trade-off between woman’s autonomy and subjective well-being in communities with relatively conservative gender norms. In other words, in a ‘conservative’ envirornment, more autonomy might  result in less happiness for a woman.

“These research findings highlight the need for policy makers to be careful while implementing self-help group based programmes in ‘conservative’ areas. Self-help group programmes in these areas should be redesigned or complemented with interventions that also challenge gender norms at the community level,” Mr De Hoop said.

Contextual characteristics like social norms can strongly relate to the impact of development programmes. Findings from impact evaluations cannot always be easily extrapolated to different settings. Mr. De Hoop suggests combining impact evaluations with the measurement of social norms or other contextual characteristics. Replications of impact evaluations in different contexts remains necessary to prove or disprove the external validity of findings from impact evaluations.” he said.

The discussion following the presentation highlighted issues like the long-term dynamics of gender norms. The suggestion that increased autonomy for women may also increase subjective well-being in the long-term needs to be tested.  The measurement of women’s autonomy may not also be sufficient in deriving conclusions about women’s empowerment. The use of mixed methods is therefore important to finding valid ways of measuring women’s empowerment.

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