Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Delivering Extension Services through Effective and Inclusive Women’s Groups: The Case of SEWA in India

Date Published: 
August 13, 2013

It is now widely accepted that women farmers need better access to extension services (World Bank, 2007; World Bank, FAO and IFAD, 2008; Farnworth, 2010). This consensus is based on the recognition that women constitute the majority of farmers in many developing countries, and that improving their access to agricultural information, training and tools is an essential aspect of improving the overall reach and effectiveness of extension initiatives (World Bank, FAO and IFAD, 2008). Farnworth (2010:13) summarizes the empirical findings in much of the extension literature over the past two decades, pointing out that gender inequality in “access to, and control over, productive resources results in poorer agricultural and human development outcomes”.

Extension needs to be supported by other factors that enable new knowledge to be put into practice. Access to land, capital, credit and basic financial management skills, among others, are needed to translate the potential of improved agricultural production techniques into increased productivity and profit. Women tend to have less access than men to complementary resources and skills as a result of gender-based patterns in the ownership of land, the control of household assets and access to schooling. An equally important factor is that women’s economic opportunities and their perceptions of their opportunities and abilities are often affected by restrictive social norms. 

Delivery of extension and advisory services through farmer groups, especially cooperatives and self-help groups, has long been used to broaden access to extension services in general but particularly for women. Cooperatives and self-help groups have also been seen as a way to provide support for the implementation of new techniques, particularly through the accumulation of capital through savings (see, for example, Mayoux, 2001). 

Extension and advisory programs using a group-based approach have found that self-help groups that are working well can increase the impact of the programs on women. 

Groups face challenges, however, which need to be understood and addressed if groups are to be effective in increasing women’s ability to access resources and implement their training to improve their lives. Many challenging questions lie in wait, including:

  • How can programs respond to the fact that the ability of women to achieve their aims through self-help groups depends to some extent on the legitimacy and social power of these groups within their wider communities?
  • How can groups that rely on mutual assistance and solidarity manage to address the needs of the poorest women in their communities and also deliver effective extension and supporting services?

Community relationships and macro-level economic, legal, social and political institutions affect the ability of women’s groups to create changes in their situations (see Mayoux, 2001) and these institutions and relationships need to be addressed if groups are to be effective in improving outcomes for women.

The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is a pioneer in delivering training and helping women build social capital and support through cooperatives and other group-based approaches, and running self-help groups to build financial capital for investment. SEWA has demonstrated a localized but highly replicable approach to increasing women’s access to extension advice. It now reaches more than 1.3 million women in India and has conducted trainings in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Afghanistan as well.

This case study highlights the way in which SEWA has achieved high levels of success in engaging women -- across religions, castes and social classes -- and increased women’s influence in their families and communities to show how the SEWA approach could be replicated by extension and advisory services in other contexts.