Translating participation in informal organizations into empowerment: Women in rural India

Date of Completion

January 2001


Women's Studies|Sociology, Individual and Family Studies|Sociology, Social Structure and Development




This dissertation research analyzes the degree to which poor women are socially empowered because of group participation. I address three main questions: (1) what has been the strategy of the state vis-á-vis movement organizations in addressing women's empowerment issues? (2) How have current trends in globalization supported collaboration between the state and community based initiatives for women? (3) What are the effects of such group based initiatives (structure and functioning) on individual women's empowerment? ^ The research model integrates gender theory and social movement theory to examine how poor women organize as informal groups. I focus on a specific state initiative called the Mahila Samakhya Karnataka Program in India engaged in organizing women's groups (called sanghas) in villages. Combining qualitative and quantitative methods, and based on a quasi-experimental research design, the field-level data collection spanned about four months (September 1998–January 1999). The data collection involved identifying key state reports, field level participant observation of 10 group meetings and observation of program activities, and structured interviews with 605 individual women (502 participants and 103 women from villages where groups have not been formed) and 31 group facilitators. ^ Using basic statistical procedure, OLS regression, HLM, and interpretation of the qualitative data my analyses suggest that participation in groups is socially empowering for women facing multiple systems of oppression; class, caste and gender. The framing of opportunities to define new interests facilitated by the interactive linkages between the macro and micro levels (global-national-local) create conditions for the emergence of new movements. At the theoretical level, my findings emphasize the need to understand the social basis of poverty and empowerment. I identify and define three types of empowerment as critical for social change for women: socio-economic, purchasing power, and social empowerment. My findings suggest that organizing facilitates women's participation in groups. Individual membership duration and perception of importance of issues discussed in meetings have a significant and positive effect on social empowerment. Collective action is likely in informal groups and group level characteristics explain about 64 per cent of the variance in the social empowerment of individual women. ^