India – Women’s Groups

Enhanced economic, social and civic participation for single women headed families

Perambalur, Ariyalur, Trichy and Kancheepuram Districts, Tamil Nadu, India


Women’s support groups

“Before we were afraid to speak with other people. Before, if we go out we got comments. Since we now have an income we don’t get any comments.”

The project aims to improve economic, social and civic participation for 1356 single women-headed families in 41 rural villages across four districts of Tamil Nadu. The program also reaches the broader community to address social norms impacting gender inequality.

According to 2011 National Census data, at least 12 in 100 households in Tamil Nadu are headed by widows, this is in comparison to 9 in 100 households as the national average. The high number of widows is attributed to several factors, including deaths from alcohol addiction and the large gap in age between husband/wife.

Alcoholism has been a contributing factor to a rise male deaths and incidence of domestic violence. The Tamil Nadu state government owns TASMAC, a company with the monopoly on alcohol sales. There are currently 2500 government controlled TASMAC alcohol vending shops in Tamil Nadu and in 2014/15 revenue from alcohol sales contributed to 26% of State tax revenue.


Life in rural Indian communities is typically male led, creating economic and social dependency, leaving women powerless if they become single. Widows, who have not only lost their husband, also face negative social stigma associated with being single. Superstition fuels beliefs that widows, divorcees and single women are ‘bad luck’.

They are frequently subjected to discrimination, impacting on their psychological state, dignity, self-esteem and physical health. Deprived of equal rights and opportunities to participate in daily life, they face isolation and poverty. Financial instability and lack of job security has forced these families to live in challenging conditions. Subsequently, their children also suffer from low self-esteem, bullying and health issues.

What the project will do

The project recognizes the interrelated dimensions of poverty and discrimination and uses an integrated approach that supports women to improve their income, education, self-confidence and family health. For 2017- 2020 the key outcomes are:

  1. Women have increased incomes
  2. Women influence social and institutional change.
  3. Women have improved wellbeing and self-confidence
  4. Communities address alcohol related issues
  5. IDT and PSSS have improved capacity to implement projects.

Supporting collective action

The project is implemented through 40 Women’s Support Groups and 25 Village Development Committees. The Women’s Groups provide a safe space for women to share their stories and form supportive relationships. They meet monthly and participate in a structured program that includes:

  • Livelihoods, business and financial training. This includes practical skill training that provide women with skills to generate an income, such as tailoring, farming and food processing.
  • Literacy education. Many of the women in the program are illiterate, unable to write their name or read street / bus signs.
  • Access to interest free ‘rolling’ loans. This provides women with seed money to start small business ventures. The recent evaluation found that loans had a payback rate of 99%.
  • Awareness raising of women’s rights. This includes legal rights and access to a free legal aid centre.
  • Psychosocial support and leadership skills to encourage women to actively participate in their community.
  • Awareness and access to government support schemes e.g. widow’s pensions, disability pensions, subsidies for toilet construction and direct linkage loans.

The project takes a holistic approach, creating awareness of gender equity through the inclusion of men in the program. The Village Development Committees (VDCs) provide the opportunity to mobilise collective action to advocate to government and to influence village improvements. Further, the VDCs provide a space for men and women to work together, and act as an entry point to initiate discussion and action between men and women on gender inequality, discrimination, and issues associated with alcohol addiction.

Women who participated in earlier 2011 phase of the project will also undertake leadership training, to mentor the newer Women’s Groups and advocate publicly for women’s rights.


Assisi is committed to continuous improvement. By monitoring and evaluating our project work we are able to strengthen our strategic approach and impact.

In 2017 Assisi utilised World Vision Chennai to conduct an independent evaluation of the project. The evaluation reported the project has dramatically improved the lives of women. Consequently in the period 2017-2020, the project will be expanded further, adding 6 new villages to support 1356 women across 41 villages.

Success stories

Assisi, with our partners IDT and PSSS commenced this project in 2011 in only 3 villages. The project has proven to be high impact and consequently we have expanded the project each year. In 2016 the project supported 34 women’s groups with 1156 members.

A 2017 evaluation of the project, 

During our 2017 project evaluation, women’s group members said:

“Being a member of the Women’s Groups has given us bonding, purpose in life and provided access to financial help from our own Women’s Groups and Peoples’ Bank organized by the Project… Our self-esteem has been enhanced, self-respect increased and social acceptance is evident.”

“Earlier I used to be worried about my future, now after joining the group I am relieved and have hope.”

“The Community respects us, we have become the head of the family and responsible person for the family, we motivate and support our children to study well and go for higher studies.”

“Being part of the Single Women’s Group gives us protection and feel we are cared for by each other.”

“Earlier we were not invited to the auspicious occasions in the village, now people are inviting us for these functions.”

“Now we are not timid and we feel bold enough to talk to others.”

The full evaluation report can be found at: Assisi Evaluation – India

Updated July 2017

Above: The woman above participated in skill training and learnt to weave wire bags. In the past 4 months she has sold around 100 bags, earning a profit of AUD $400.

The women pictured above now earn an income from selling milk and have sired a calf.  They have been trained in cow / goat raising, organic farming and tailoring, as well as financial literacy and given access to loans.

Above: adult literacy classes. Women expressed a new sense of pride as they can sign their name rather than use a thumb print and read bus signs.

Above: World Vision Chennai conducting focus group discussions with members of Women’s Groups as part of our three year program evaluation, in April 2017.