zaidi_GhoshPacific PressLightRocket via Getty Images_indiawomansmallbusiness Avjit Ghosh/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

A Blueprint from India for Women’s Economic Empowerment

India’s self-help groups have advanced gender equality and contributed to a sharp decline in poverty over the past 15 years. The task now is to replicate their success elsewhere and apply their lessons to other barriers to women’s advancement.

SEATTLE – As we embark on a new year, I have been reflecting on “resolutions,” and more specifically, what it takes for an individual or a society to be resolute in a world of endless challenges and obstacles. Throughout my career, I have seen many examples of triumph against the odds – extraordinary accomplishments that often begin with a small group of individuals seeking to solve a problem. In the best cases, local communities, government, and the private sector align and invest in programs and policies that create more opportunities for these groups to flourish.

The extraordinary success of women’s self-help groups in India represents one of the best-case outcomes. Established by women determined to build a brighter future for themselves and their families, these groups have thrived thanks to innovative financial and infrastructure support from the Indian government. With over 80 million women participating in 7.5 million such groups, India is fostering the world’s largest community development program, which is now a key component of the country’s economy.

Women, especially in rural areas, face gender-based barriers to participating fully in their communities and building a livelihood: Many, unable to open a bank account or access credit, are dependent on informal loans from relatives, friends, or money lenders. Moreover, traditional family structures and social norms may constrain women from engaging in activities necessary to start or expand a small business.