A study of women’s groups in Kenya and Tanzania and their roles in sustainable
How can we more effectively tap into the potential of women’s groups as instruments for
sustainable development in East Africa? While the existence of women’s groups in
developing countries is well-known, experience indicates that some groups are much
more effective than others in promoting positive change in their communities. This may
be because of some inherent characteristics of the group, or because of external factors
that limit their ability to succeed. If development organizations wish to promote positive
change, they should have an understanding of which groups will be most likely to make
effective use of the resources given them. In addition, they should be aware of the key
obstacles which must be addressed before projects can meet with success.
Brief Overview of the Literature in the Field
Development workers have long recognized the importance of women in the overall
development of their communities. According to USAID, “The contributions that women
make to the economic, social, and political lives of their nations, communities, families
and the next generation make them key actors in effective development.”i
In addition, it has become clear that helping women improve their own lives helps society
as a whole. A gender assessment conducted in Tanzania for USAID claims that
“alleviating gender inequalities in access to key economic or political resources – such as
landholding, inheritance, and health services – can improve Tanzania’s overall
A number of studies have examined the gender inequalities that have traditionally
hindered the development of women in East Africa. Women often lack the power to
make decisions and participate in civil society, and have very limited access to gainful
employment.iii They often face opposition from husbands and community leaders who
resent their attempts at empowerment. Women have fewer legal rights than men, in
particular they often cannot own or inherit property.iv Because of inequality in education
for girls, many of them reach adulthood with little education and skills training.v In
particular, most lack the leadership training essential for organizing and acting
effectively.vi Furthermore, cultural norms tolerate and perpetuate violence that is
disproportionately directed against women, especially in times of crisis.vii
In response to such inequalities, it is natural for women to band together for mutual
support. In Africa, in particular, the contributions of women to society and the potential
for alleviating gender inequalities are increased by their tendency to organize into groups
to voice their concerns and address common goals.viii The United Nations has long
recognized the value of such groups, claiming that they “have an important role to play in
increasing rural women's visibility at local and international levels, in representing and
safeguarding women's traditional and legal rights, increasing women's ability to control
their earned income, increasing women's access to agricultural services and resources,
and in influencing policy-making and legislation at the national level.”ix These
activities, in turn, increase the contributions of the women to society and their ability to
effect positive changes in their communities.
While women’s groups have been active in East Africa for a long time, it is only
relatively recently that development organizations have begun working with them
formally. Many of these organizations have focused their efforts on assisting women’s
groups to implement projects in their communities and on defining and reducing the
barriers they face. I have worked closely with two such organizations, one in Kenya and
one in Tanzania:
Inter-Community Development Involvement (ICODEI) is a grassroots organization
formed in 1996 to address the needs of rural communities in Western Province, Kenya,
and is based near the town of Bungoma. This organization is implementing programs in
health, education, and micro-enterprise development, and has worked with over 50
women’s groups (a total of over 2000 women), many of them united in umbrella
Kivulini is a non-profit organization established in 1999 and based in Mwanza, Tanzania.
Originally founded to reduce violence against women, Kivulini now provides advocacy,
vocational training, legal and social counseling, and capital for micro-lending programs,
reaching over 10,000 women.xi
Research Approach and Methodology
It is clear that women are key players in the development of their communities, that
helping women results in improved conditions for the community as a whole, and that
women’s groups can be very effective vehicles for positive change for both the women
who comprise them and the communities in which they are active.
However, it is obvious that some groups are more successful than others. This research
will compare characteristics and activities of various women’s groups, in order to see if
there is a correlation between particular characteristics and successful implementation of
development projects. In addition, the study will identify the key barriers to the success
of projects conducted by women’s groups, based on their personal experiences.
What exactly constitutes success? Past projects with external funding will likely have
included well-established measurable indicators of success such as changes in economic
security, health, income levels, school attendance, literacy, child mortality, crop
productivity, soil fertility, etc. Success can also be defined more subjectively by the
women themselves. In this case, success is measured by the women’s perception of their
abilities to effect positive change (however they themselves define positive change).
This subjective measure of success may be as important as the objective ones.
Ten groups each will be selected in Kenya and Tanzania, in cooperation with ICODEI
and Kivulini. Group characteristics and project success will be defined so that they can
be recorded and ranked through surveys, interviews, and direct observation of women’s
groups. The data will be compiled and analyzed qualitatively to determine if there are
any correlations between particular group characteristics and group success. In addition,
the data will be analyzed for statistical correlations using multiple regression analysis or
analysis of variance.
The following characteristics will be determined for each group:
• Demographics of the individual members: ages, education levels, ethnicity,
religious and cultural affiliation, health, income, number of children, etc.
• Characteristics of the group as a whole: history, size, presence of men if any
• Characteristics of group leaders: education levels, socio-economic status, etc.
• Resources: buildings, land, equipment, materials, money, etc.
• Mode of operation: meetings, election of leaders, decision-making processes, by-
laws, minutes, uniforms, financial arrangements
• Purpose: social interaction, income generation, emotional support, financial
support, emergency assistance, faith-based activities
Group members will be interviewed about their past and present group activities,
• What activities have they tried in the past? Which were successful, and which
• What have they been able to accomplish on their own without outside assistance?
• Have they received external assistance for some of their projects? If so, what are
the details? What type of assistance (technical, legal, financial) did they receive?
Were the projects monitored and evaluated? What were the results? Did the
projects continue after external aid ended?
Barriers to successful program implementation
Group members will be interviewed and past activities analyzed to determine any barriers
to successful project implementation. The women will be asked to identify the following,
reflecting on their own experiences and being as specific as possible:
• In successful projects, which barriers were overcome, and how?
• For unsuccessful projects, what were the barriers that prevented success?
• What are potential barriers for implementing future projects?
• How could each of these barriers be addressed?
• Given resource and cultural constraints, which changes would be most helpful?
The goal of this study is to provide concrete advice for development agencies and private
NGOs seeking to promote positive, sustainable change in communities by supporting
women’s groups. In particular, the study seeks to provide answers to the following
• Is there any correlation between particular characteristics of a group and the
likelihood that projects will be implemented successfully? (Are there any clear
predictors of success?)
• If certain “successful” characteristics are missing, how can one correct these
deficiencies? (for instance, changing the size of the group, developing by-laws,
• What appear to be the most significant barriers to success? Which of these can be
most easily alleviated?
• Are some of the barriers imposed by the development agencies themselves? (e.g.,
excessive monitoring or paperwork)
• Have barriers changed over the years? Are some groups stymied by fear of
barriers that have limited them in the past but are no longer real threats? (e.g.,
because of changes in the law or political climate)
• Are these findings consistent across societies?xii
By finding answers to these questions, it should be possible to more effectively engage
women’s groups, and to focus limited resources on the most promising undertakings, in
the continuing effort to increase the success and sustainability of development programs.
USAID. Women in Development. http://www.usaid.gov/our_work/cross-cutting_programs/wid/
December 1, 2006.
Gender Assessment for USAID/Tanzania. A study conducted for USAID by DevTech Systems, Inc.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Women, Agriculture, and Rural Development:
A Synthesis Report of the Africa Region. 1995.
Steinzor, Nadia. Women’s Property and Inheritance Rights: Improving Lives in Changing Times.
Women in Development Technical Assistance Project funded by USAID. March 2003.
USAID. Women in Development.
Manuh, Takyiwaa. Women in Africa’s Development: Overcoming Obstacles, Pushing for Progress.
Africa Recovery Briefing Paper No. 11. Department of Public Information, United Nations. April, 1998.
USAID. Women in Development.
Kivulini Women’s Rights Organization. http://www.kivulini.org.
This might raise an interesting secondary question: Can differences be traced to the different political
and economic histories of Tanzania and Kenya?