India is home to over 6 million women’s groups, including self-help groups. There has been no evidence synthesis on whether and how such groups improve women’s and children’s health.
We did a mixed-methods systematic review of quantitative and qualitative studies on women’s groups in India to examine effects on women and children’s health and to identify enablers and barriers to achieving outcomes. We searched 10 databases and included studies published in English from 2000 to 2019 measuring health knowledge, behaviours or outcomes. Our study population included adult women and children under 5 years. We appraised studies using standard risk of bias assessments. We compared intervention effects by level of community participation, scope of capability strengthening (individual, group or community), type of women’s group and social and behaviour change techniques employed. We synthesised quantitative and qualitative studies to identify barriers and enablers related to context, intervention design and implementation, and outcome characteristics.
We screened 21 380 studies and included 99: 19 randomised controlled trial reports, 25 quasi-experimental study reports and 55 non-experimental studies (27 quantitative and 28 qualitative). Experimental studies provided moderate-quality evidence that health interventions with women’s groups can improve perinatal practices, neonatal survival, immunisation rates and women’s and children’s dietary diversity, and help control vector-borne diseases. Evidence of positive effects was strongest for community mobilisation interventions that built communities’ capabilities and went beyond sharing information. Key enablers were inclusion of vulnerable community members, outcomes that could be reasonably expected to change through community interventions and intensity proportionate to ambition. Barriers included limited time or focus on health, outcomes not relevant to group members and health system constraints.
Interventions with women’s groups can improve women’s and children’s health in India. The most effective interventions go beyond using groups to disseminate health information and seek to build communities’ capabilities.