Dijo Augustine and Minu M. Kumar
Women Empowerment through the SHG Approach
Tata Institute
Volume 71, Issue 4
Social Sciences
October 2010
Women Empowerment through the
SHG Approach
The Kudumbashree Model
Kudumbashree, the poverty alleviation programme, was launched by the State
Government of Kerala on April 1, 1999. This programme views women empowerment
as the key to bring families out the poverty trap. Offering microcredit through self-help
was considered as the best means to achieve this goal. This article observes the
women-centred activities of Kudumbashree and the impact it has had on their
empowerment. Members of neighbourhood groups of this programme believe that
women are, in most cases, affected by income disparity and poverty among families.
Hence, it tries to reach out to the community through families and women. This article
tries to analyse these aspects of the programme. The article is based on the
experiences of the two authors who worked as voluntary executives of Kudumbashree
during the first two semesters of their Master’s programme in Social Work. This was
part of their fieldwork programme with the District Mission of Ernakulam.
Dijo Augustine is Labour Welfare Officer at Harrisons Malayalam Ltd., Idukki, Kerala,
and Minu M. Kumar is Development Promoter, at Rajagiri Outreach Kalamassery,
Millions of women in our hamlets know what unemployment means. Give
them access to economic activities and they will have access to power and
self-confidence to which they hitherto have been strangers.
Mahatma Gandhi
Kudumbashree (etymological meaning is ‘prosperity of the family’) is an
ambitious poverty alleviation programme launched by the State Govern-
ment of Kerala (GoK) in 1999 with the aim of eradicating absolute poverty
over a 10-year period through concerted community action under the lead-
ership of local governments. Under this programme, women empower-
ment was seen as the key to bring out families of the poverty trap and
IJSW, 71(4), 601–612, October 2010

Dijo Augustine and Minu M. Kumar
microcredit activities through selfhelp was considered as the best means to
achieve it.
This article is divided into three sections. In section I, the relationship
between poverty and empowerment is examined, as well as the role of and
access to financial resources like microcredit and other services. Section II
briefly describes the structure of Kudumbashree, its objectives and
programmes. The last section deals with the impact and implications of the
programme for women empowerment.
Dreze and Sen (1989) describe poverty as a severe failure of basic capabili-
ties. According to Chambers (1995), the poor suffer from five clusters of
disadvantages: ( i) lack of assets due to inadequate access to productive as-
sets; (ii) physical weakness because of inability to have access to basic ne-
cessities such as food, nutrition, and medical facilities; (iii) isolation from
information, social services, markets and support networks; (iv) vulnera-
bility due to exposure to risks and impoverishments; and (v) powerless-
ness, which is often the cumulative result of the above mentioned
disadvantages making it difficult for the poor to organise and bargain.
Those in poor households — especially the women — often lack these
basic capabilities and self-confidence to counter the existing disparities
and barriers against them. Often, change agents are needed to consciously
catalyse social mobilisation. However, the processes of social mobilisation
need to be accompanied and complemented by economic security. As long
as the disadvantaged suffer from economic deprivation and livelihood in-
security, they will not be in a position to mobilise and act (United Nations
Development Programme, 2001).
According to Mayoux (1998), there are three approaches which uses finan-
cial intermediation to achieve empowerment for poor:
Financial self-sustainability approach, where the emphasis is on ac-
cess to resources. It is generally assumed that women having access to
microcredit will use it to increase their incomes through income gener-
ation activities resulting in increased control over their income and re-
Poverty alleviation approach, where empowerment is seen in terms of
focus on communities and social relationships. This approach
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Women Empowerment through the SHG Approach 603
prioritises assistance to groups with a focus on households and com-
munities. In a way, it addresses the practical needs of women so as to
enable them to challenge unequal gender relations in society.
Feminist empowerment approach, where financial intermediation is
seen as contributing to the process of women’s empowerment by en-
hancing women’s productive role in the household. Credit
programmes are, in fact, seen as an entry point for wider social mobili-
sation. Here, the focus is not as much on access to loans and instead on
enhancing the social and political processes that allow women contest
their subordination.
From the point of view of the last approach, microcredit and selfhelp are
seen as important ways to help poor women address their lack of capabili-
ties in their journey towards empowerment. Therefore, bringing women
into the mainstream of national development has been one of the major
concerns of the GoK. Keeping this in focus, the Kudumbashree
programme was launched where the basic unit of intervention are neigh-
bourhood SHGs of poor women.
As the earlier anti-poverty programmes initiated to eradicate poverty did
not yield the desired results, the GoK launched Kudumbashree—a
women-oriented, community-based, poverty alleviation programme—to
deal with the situation arising out of such failure with the active support of
the Government of India and the National Bank of Agriculture and Rural
Development (NABARD). The success of Alappuzha and its smooth repli-
cation in Malappuram inspired the GoK for expansion of the model
throughout the state (Anand, 2002; Raghavan, 2009). The coverage of the
mission was extended to all gram panchayats in a phased manner in
2000–2001. Its main objective was to deal with the morbid development
imbalances of the state. Kudumbashree gave prime importance for the eco-
nomic empowerment of the indigent masses, especially the poor women of
Kerala. Started in 1999, this decade-long project included three compo-
nents — microcredit, entrepreneurship, and empowerment. It also en-
gaged in women’s empowerment activities like organising awareness
classes and imparting leadership training, among others. The main work-
ing slogan of Kudumbashree is ‘to reach-out to families through women
and reach-out to the community through the family’. In fact,
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Dijo Augustine and Minu M. Kumar
Kudumbashree has been identified as among the 15 best practices in gover-
nance in India by the Planning Commission and the UNDP.
Mission Statement
According to its mission statement, Kudumbashree aims at eradicating ab-
solute poverty in 10 years through concerted community action under the
leadership of local governments, by facilitating organisation of the poor by
combining self-help with demand-led convergence of available services
and resources to tackle holistically the multiple dimensions and manifesta-
tions of poverty.
Structure of the Kudumbashree Model
Kudumbashree is a three-tier structure. The lowest rung or the basic unit is
the ‘neighbourhood group’ (NHG), which consists 20–40 women in urban
areas or 15–40 in rural areas and all members from below poverty line
(BPL) families. Five functional volunteers manage the NHG — commu-
nity health volunteer, income generation volunteer, infrastructure volun-
teer, secretary and president.
Around 8–10 NHGs at each ward level of corporation municipality divi-
sion/gram panchayat are coordinated to form an Area Development Soci-
ety (ADS). A five-member committee in each NHG constitutes the
governing body with a chairperson, a vice-chairperson and seven other
members elected democratically from this governing body. The commu-
nity organiser of the municipality, if it is an urban area, acts as the Mem-
ber-Secretary of the ADS.
Next, the Community Development Society (CDS) is the apex body of
all the ADSs at corporation municipality division/gram panchayat level.
The chairperson, vice-chairperson and members of all ADSs form the gen-
eral body of the CDS, whose committee comprises a president, a vice-pres-
ident and seven other members elected from the general body of the CDS.
The CDS is a registered body under the Charitable Societies Act. The
Member-Secretary of the CDS will be a government official nominated by
the concerned local self-government. The Committee and the Mem-
ber-Secretary constitute the governing body of the CDS. The CDS moni-
tors the programmes and micro-plans undertaken by the ADSs on a regular
basis and take steps to improve the implementation of the programmes. In
2009, there were 1.94 lakh NHGs, 17,000 ADS and 1,061 CDS in the state
covering 37.4 lakh families (Kudumbashree, 2009). Significantly,
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Women Empowerment through the SHG Approach 605
Kudumbashree has also organised five neighbourhood tribal groups in the
tribal pockets of Trichur, Palakkad and Kasargod districts (Pat, 2005).
In Kudumbashree, the beneficiaries are identified by using a nine-point
risk indicator. The specific risk indicators may slightly differ between rural
and urban areas. (See Table 1)
Risk Indicators
Living in a sub-standard house or hut
No house or house in a dilapidated
Not having any land
Not having any land or having less than 5
No access to sanitary latrines
No access to sanitary latrines
No access to drinking water within 150
No access to drinking water within 150
Women-headed households or presence
Women-headed households or presence
of a widow or divorcee or an abandoned
of a widow or divorcee or an abandoned
woman or an unwed mother
woman or an unwed mother
Having no or only one earning member
Having no or only one earning member
in the family
in the family
Belonging to a socially disadvantaged
Belonging to a socially disadvantaged
group (line a Scheduled Caste or
group (line a Scheduled Caste or
Scheduled Tribe)
Scheduled Tribe)
Getting only 2 meals or less per day
Presence of mentally or physically
challenged person or a chronically ill
member in the family
Having an illiterate adult member in the
Families without a colour TV
Any household (rural or urban) with at least a minimum of four of the
above-mentioned risk indicators, falls in the category of a BPL family. To
become a member of a Kudumbashree NHG, any woman from a BPL
household is eligible and the attempts of the NHG will be focused on alle-
viating the risk factors of the household.
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Dijo Augustine and Minu M. Kumar
Unique Aspects of the Kudumbashree Model
Some of the unique features of Kerala’s Kudumbashree programme are
discussed here.
Holistic Approach to Poverty Reduction
Kudumbashree perceives poverty as a state of multiple deprivations. While
the monetary factors are considered as contributing to poverty, it is mani-
fested predominantly in the form of deprivation of basic needs, facilities
and rights. Therefore, in the Kudumbashree model, to eradicate absolute
poverty the focus is on restoring the entitlements denied to the poor by en-
abling them access to those entitlements.
Better Diagnosis of Poor Families
The poor are generally identified by using income as the main parameter.
This is done through a household survey conducted by officials and subse-
quently the data generated are transferred to the community. Instead, in
Kudumbashree, the poor are identified using a nine-point, non-monetary
risk indicator mentioned earlier. The indices are very simple, transparent,
and easily understood by the community and capture the concrete manifes-
tations of poverty. The indicators provide a range of possible combinations
of poverty situations, which the poor can identify by themselves. By using
these indicators, 382 different combinations of finding a poor family are
possible. The indicators provide an opportunity to have a rational grading
and to find out corrective steps. Here, the intervention of officials in the
identification of the poor is removed, and the task is entrusted to the com-
munity itself.
Mission Mode
Kudumbashree functions in a mission rather than as a project mode. It en-
compasses a multi-departmental and multi-disciplinary team. It has a flexi-
ble style of functioning, which follows a process approach. The multiple
deprivations of the poor are addressed using various anti-poverty
programmes implemented by the State.
Organisation of the Poor
After being identified through the non-economic parameters, all poor fam-
ilies of the state are brought under the well-networked, community-based
organisation (CBO) structure. The membership in the organisation is ex-
clusively for women from the identified poor families using the risk
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Women Empowerment through the SHG Approach 607
indicators. Keeping up with its mission statement, the organisational struc-
ture of Kudumbashree goes beyond thrift, credit and microenterprises and
addresses the various dimensions of poverty through different aware-
ness-building programmes and community intervention strategies
(Raghavan, 2009: 476–478). Thus, an attempt is made to address the issues
of women, children, aged, youth and the disabled through specially de-
signed programmes in a holistic manner.
Reaching Out
Though the government has been implementing various poverty alleviation
programmes for several decades, it is observed that the poor who live in utter
distress and despair had been left out from the coverage of such programmes.
The structure of Kudumbashree is such that the poorest of the poor, the desti-
tute, the physically and mentally challenged and other most vulnerable sec-
tions of society are covered through its unique programme Ashraya — the
Destitute Identification, Rehabilitation and Monitoring (DIRM) project.
Varied Economic Interventions
With the aim of enabling women from poor families to venture into
microenterprises and earn a steady income to overcome their poverty, a se-
ries of self-employment programmes and group microenterprise activities
have been initiated, including production of Nutrimix, a baby food prod-
uct. Kudumbashree has instituted technology, innovation and revolving
funds to promote such innovative microenterprises. In the realm of
microenterprises, Kudumbashree has its own brand, which has been ac-
cepted by various stakeholders in the market.
Beyond Capacity Building: Building Capabilities
Capability deprivation is one of the root causes of poverty (Dreze and Sen,
1989). Hence, building capabilities of the poor is necessary to make pov-
erty alleviation efforts sustainable. To achieve this, Kudumbashree has ini-
tiated a series of activities to build capabilities of the poor that includes
human resource development programmes for the leaders of CBOs, techni-
cal, skill development programmes, entrepreneurial training and perfor-
mance improvement programmes for entrepreneurs, and general
awareness programmes for the community at large. This process has en-
abled women from poor families to get educationally empowered. The ca-
pacity-building programmes include small trainings such as how to
approach a bank, fill forms with regard to major activities, account keep-
ing, and maintenance of enterprise.
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Dijo Augustine and Minu M. Kumar
Leadership of Local Self-government
As indicated earlier, in Kudumbashree, the CBOs are created under the
leadership of local self-government. Unlike other SHG-oriented poverty
reduction programmes in Kudumbashree, the CBOs are well integrated
with the Panchayati Raj system. The NHG, the grassroot level organisation
of Kudumbashree, is just below the gram sabha. In urban local bodies, they
earmark 2% of their own revenue for the poverty alleviation programmes
of Kudumbashree, in addition to the projects implemented through decen-
tralised planning programme. Thus, the network of Kudumbashree CBOs
maintains a positive and mutually reinforcing relationship with local
self-government institutions.
The model provides a space where schemes, services and resources of vari-
ous governmental and non-governmental agencies and line departments
working in the area of poverty reduction can converge. As Kudumbashree
is a programme where different departments and agencies such as the
Spices Board, Khadi and Village Industries Commission, Khadi and Vil-
lage Industries Board, ST and SC Development Departments, and social
welfare and labour welfare departments come to collaborate, the member
families of the NHGs can have access to the various services and resources
of these line departments.
Positive and Public Action
The CBOs under Kudumbashree enjoy a wider presence throughout the
state and the community as a whole and extend support to poverty allevia-
tion activities undertaken by it. It is performing a dual role that is, as a de-
livery mechanism and also as a pressure group for the creation of public
services and improvement in the quality of public services for the poor,
whenever the need arises.

Economic Empowerment
To eradicate poverty, it is essential to bring in prosperity by actively in-
volving the poor in livelihood activities. Thus, members of NHGs are en-
abled to undertake small livelihood activities and plans to improve their
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Women Empowerment through the SHG Approach 609
living conditions. These plans go to the ADS for guidance and implemen-
tation. The starting point is the thrift and credit operation through which
they learn the basic lessons of economic development. In Kudumbashree,
the cumulative thrift collected by the 1,51,406 NHGs amounted to Rupees
432.35 crore and they disbursed a loan amounting to Rupees 874.78 crore
among its members.
The NHG members are further motivated to undertake large-scale
microenterprises. As of date, women from poor families have taken 1,268
group microenterprises and 14,807 individual microenterprises in urban
areas and 19,343 group enterprises and 13,849 individual enterprises in
rural areas. Involvement in microenterprises enables them to come out of
the poverty trap through improvement in their living conditions. During
the process, they developed self-confidence, learnt a sense of activism and
the ability to take decisions on their own. These helped them challenge the
gender barriers.
Social Empowerment
The women, who were once confined to the limited circle of their house-
holds, are now enabled to actively participate in NHGs, and discuss the is-
sues affecting their families and society at large. They are engaged in
fighting against the evils of society such as illicit liquor, domestic violence,
illiteracy, and so on.
Educational Empowerment
The lessons they learn while managing their internal affairs such as mobi-
lising thrift, disbursing loans, operating bank accounts, approaching banks
for loans and undertaking small livelihood activities — enable them to de-
velop autonomy and survival skills, which is an educational experience
that no formal school can give.
Political Empowerment
Kudumbashree’s three-tier structure is organised in such a way that it of-
fers ample opportunities for leadership development among women mem-
bers. Using nine non-economic parameters, women are identified from
poor families and first admitted to the NHGs where they are given the op-
portunity to move towards leadership roles. The NHG clusters are feder-
ated into ADSs, which have an elected body from among the teams of the
NHGs. The CDS, at the local body level, comprises a nine-member com-
mittee with a chairperson and vice-chairperson who are elected and
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Dijo Augustine and Minu M. Kumar
positioned at the local body level. By becoming a member of the federa-
tion, each woman hailing from a poor family gets an opportunity to rise to
leadership roles starting from the NHG to the CDS. In every village
panchayat, the slow and steady political process of elevating women to dif-
ferent tiers of leadership is visible.
The success stories of Kudumbashree units in various districts of Kerala
throws light on the economic, social and political empowerment of
women. These women have become confident in taking their own deci-
sions and, unlike before, are actively participating in the decision-making
process in their own families (Aboobacker, 2001).
Recently, a survey of the performance of Kudumbashree units in select
panchayats, since the past four years has revealed certain factors that have
come in the way of realising the objectives of the mission. These deficien-
cies and lacunae notwithstanding, it would seem that Kudumbashree, with
its accent on women empowerment, participation and leadership could
make a qualitative difference to the life of people (Pat, 2005).
Kudumbashree has helped many women emerge from the confines of their
homes, participate and even win elections. For instance, in Vengaoor
Panchayat in Thiruvananthapuram, the president, S was a member of an
NHG. Later, she became the president of the group and then gradually rose
to get elected as the chairperson of the CDS. She was later elected as member
of the 19th Ward. According to her, ‘empowered women are rare women…
who have fought in life and have come up the hard way.’
As voluntary executives of Kudumbashree, the authors had an opportu-
nity to listen to the success stories and experiences of NHG women and ob-
serve their confidence and happiness. Women members narrate an
interesting experience that before becoming an NHG member or an active
participant in Kudumbashree activities, they were not taken into cogni-
sance by any local politician during elections. The candidates only ap-
proached their husbands for votes assuming that it was the men who
decided such matters in the family. However, after becoming NHG mem-
bers, these women were given importance in the social and political
spheres of their lives as even their husbands started consulting them in such
matters. This impact in the realm of self-esteem is an important indicator of
empowerment (Thelma, 2003).
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Women Empowerment through the SHG Approach 611
Empowerment is a process where women take control of their lives by
expanding their choices. Thus, the women are being empowered by the
process of group formation by both governmental and non-governmental
organisations, which goes beyond financial intermediation and emphasises
social vision. Women empowerment, in its true sense, is the primary focus
of Kudumbashree.
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IJSW, 71(4), 601–612, October 2010