women networks India politics

Women’s microcredit groups empower women politically


Published 16.05.24

Evidence from India shows that women’s microcredit groups stimulate women’s political participation by building their networks

Women in India are chronically underrepresented in politics. Women hold 14.7% of seats in the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) and 13.0% of Rajya Sabha (upper house) seats, below the global average of 26.9% of all parliamentary seats. While the gender gap in voter turnout closed in India’s 2019 general election, disparities in non-electoral forms of political participation persist and are large; women in India are 36 percentage points less likely to contact elected representatives, 48 percentage points less likely to attend public meetings, and 12 percentage points less likely to participate in campaign activities. In fact, our data reveal that 65% of the women who report voting do not participate in politics between elections (compared to only 21% of men). While women appear to be included on election days, they remain severely underrepresented in the time between elections.

Family-centred politics and women’s political participation

The most common explanations of the gender gap focus on the role of resources – money, education, time – and argue that political participation is costlier for women than men, given gendered inequalities in these resources (Burns et al. 2003, Gaikwad and Brulé 2021). Others postulate that patriarchal norms constrain women’s participation in public spaces (Robinson and Gottlieb 2021). But neither of these explanations alone explains the puzzling patterns of women’s regular voting but absence between elections.

Drawing on a census of more than 3,500 adults in six villages and semi-structured interviews with 200 randomly sampled men and women, we document in a recent book how women’s political participation is better explained by a system of “family-centred politics” in which women’s political behaviour is often determined by their household. In such a system, households jointly make political decisions on voting, political participation and demand articulation. Women will participate in politics only when it benefits their household. Women’s voting, particularly under clientelist exchange, materially benefits the household. Women’s participation in non-electoral political participation, on the other hand, bears high costs and limited benefits. In such forms of political participation, households divide political labour by sending a representative to elevate household demands: in our interviews, the most commonly stated reason for not attending village meetings was that someone else from their household was already going.  

But, households are not fair institutions and are often sites of inequality and coercion. When households coordinate political behaviour, men often dominate decisions given their greater bargaining power (deriving from resource inequalities) and status (deriving from patriarchal norms). This means that men commonly represent the household in political spaces when a division of labour is warranted. Men’s position as political representative perpetuates a cycle of gender-based political inequalities as men accumulate political skills, resources, and networks through their sustained political engagement.

Our census data reveal that two-thirds of women state that they would not deviate from the household in vote choice, and 40% of women’s political discussion networks derive from the household (as compared to 4% for men). This coincides with large gender gaps in the size and composition of individuals’ political networks: men report discussing politics with 1.75 people on average, 97% of whom are men, while women report discussing politics with only 1.25 people, 46% of whom are men.

An important implication of our argument is that, while women will vote at high rates, they will not necessarily retain autonomy over their vote choice as they will be expected to defer to the household choice. In fact, fewer than 50% of women stated that they had the most say over their own vote choice and, instead, the majority of women stated that they defer their vote choice to a male family member.

Women’s microcredit groups empower women politically

If women are political subjects of their households, what will enable their political inclusion? Our evidence suggests that one path to women’s political empowerment is by gaining autonomy from the household, which reveals a surprising way that existing policy may unintentionally have the power to transform women’s political lives.

The architecture of many development programmes today relies on the organisation of women’s groups. With the initiation of microcredit came the systematic introduction of women’s groups as a mechanism for collective monitoring and collateral. The formation of women’s groups, known as Self-Help Groups (SHGs), has been championed in India since the 1980s. The SHG movement has expanded substantially since its adoption by the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) as a federal policy in 2011. Today, there are over 9 million SHGs operating in India involving more than 100 million women.

The core aim of microcredit groups (and SHGs) is women’s financial empowerment. Microcredit groups are embedded in a larger development discourse that asserts that women’s access to financial resources increases their bargaining power and subsequently improves their economic, social, and political outcomes. However, in a system where the household is prized, women’s microcredit groups have the potential to disrupt women’s political participation more directly. By expanding women’s networks outside of the household, these groups may enable women to gain autonomy from their household and collectively demand access to politics.

We evaluate the impact of an SHG intervention in across 152 villages in rural Madhya Pradesh, where the non-governmental organisation PRADAN has mobilised SHGs for decades (Prillaman 2023). By pair-matching villages across an arbitrary boundary that determined which villages received PRADAN’s intervention, we estimate the effect of participation in SHGs on women’s political behaviour using data from more than 2,000 women.

We find that SHGs have a substantial impact on women’s political empowerment and that their empowerment unfolds through an unanticipated channel. Women who were members of an SHG in villages with SHGs were nearly twice as likely to participate in politics between elections as compared to women in villages that did not receive the intervention. Women who received the SHG intervention were 15% more likely to attend a village assembly meeting, 11% more likely to make a claim on the most local tier of government, and 4% more likely to make a claim on a higher tier of government.

Was this because women were financially empowered through SHGs, and these financial resources enabled their political participation? We find that SHG participation had little effect on members’ economic empowerment in line with a large literature on the economic impact of microfinance (Brody et al 2015; Banerjee 2013). SHG participation was not associated with greater consumption, food security, or access to quick credit for women members. While women in SHGs were more likely to have a bank account, they were no more likely to own assets, hold cash, or be employed.

Instead, we attribute women’s political empowerment to the network-building impact of SHGs: SHGs institutionalise space for women to convene regularly with other women and expand and deepen women’s networks outside of the household. This network effect is evident in our census data - women who are members of SHGs discuss politics with, on average, 38% more people than non-SHG women in the same village, and SHG members’ political discussion networks include more people from outside their households.

Through facilitating regular group discussions, SHGs also enable women to develop civic skills and new political demands. In group meetings, women articulate preferences, practice deliberation, and develop confidence and authority. SHG members were more likely to see themselves as confident and state that they would speak up at village meetings. They also identified different issues, particularly the underprovision of water and protection from violence, when asked about the major problems impacting their village. And by deepening women’s bonds and fostering collective action, SHGs enabled women to withstand backlash from men. As summarised by one SHG member:

“We have done many things in the village. We have solved issues for children in the village. We have also fought for the prohibition of alcohol. A new team from our SHG has been formed on the issue of intoxication. If women are being beaten or harassed by men, then we help them. We go to the Panchayat together. Wherever there is an issue, all we sisters go there collectively.”

Conclusions and paths forward

Our research highlights that a way to stimulate women’s political participation is by increasing their connectivity with other women from their communities. Women’s political empowerment in these communities cannot be attributed to their economic empowerment nor to their greater connectivity to the powerful male political actors in their village. Instead, women themselves brought about political inclusion through collective action.

In the face of strong male networks of political power, women’s collective action - their “strength in numbers” - is the cornerstone of bottom-up efforts to challenge patriarchal spaces. Our findings suggest that the traditional model of many development interventions – that women’s empowerment happens through financial empowerment – is not so straightforward, as financial empowerment alone may not be enough to sustainably reduce women’s vulnerability to coercion within the household or to unseat patriarchal norms. Strengthening women’s capacity for collective action is critical for bottom-up and sustained change. Policymakers can do so by finding new ways to institutionalise and invest in the groundswell of interventions that are being spearheaded by women’s groups. Rather than locating the value of microcredit in its financial upliftment of rural women, policymakers can fortify these groups’ solidarity and collective power.


Brulé, R and N Gaikwad (2021), "Culture, capital, and the political economy gender gap: evidence from Meghalaya’s matrilineal tribes." The Journal of Politics, 83(3): 834-850.

Burns, N, K L Schlozman and S Verba (2001), The private roots of public action: Gender, equality, and political participation. In The Private Roots of Public Action. Harvard University Press.

Prillaman, S A (2023), The Patriarchal Political Order: the making and unraveling of the gendered participation gap in India, Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics Series. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Prillaman, S A (2023), "Strength in numbers: how women's groups close India's political gender gap." American Journal of Political Science, 67(2): 390-410.

Robinson, A L and J Gottlieb (2021), "How to close the gender gap in political participation: Lessons from matrilineal societies in Africa." British Journal of Political Science, 51(1): 68-92.