Social Enterprises for Women

Save the Children ranked India 140 out of 179 nations in the 2015 "Mothers' Index". (1)  This, along with other alarming statistics such as high unemployment and maternal mortality rates, indicates a severe need for women’s support mechanisms in India as well as other parts of the developing world.  Fortunately, global health and development work has seen the rise of many social enterprises seeking to fill this void by providing banking services, small loans, and health care to women in need.

It has been shown that poor women in particular benefit from social enterprise services. The argument for programs that target women, such as microfinance initiatives, is that women's status in their homes and in their communities is elevated when they are responsible for managing loans and savings.  Research shows that credit extended to women has a significant impact on their families' quality of life, especially their children.  Poor women also tend to have the best credit ratings.  In Bangladesh, for example, women have shown to default on loans far less often than men.(2)

“The ripples of women's microfinance can build into waves of transformation, leading not only to greater self-confidence and new roles for women, but also to powerful institutions able to take on complex new tasks serving the whole of society.”(3)

In addition, programs that seek to employ women have been emerging throughout the developing world.  Initiatives to train and hire female health workers, for example, have met with tremendous success: “Countries that train and deploy more front-line female health workers have seen dramatic declines in maternal, newborn and child mortality. Bangladesh has reduced its under-5 mortality rate by 64 % since 1990 with the help of tens of thousands of female health workers who have promoted family planning, safe motherhood and essential care for newborn babies. Indonesia cut its maternal mortality rate by 42 % during that same period, thanks in part to its “midwife in every village” program. Nepal has achieved similar reductions in maternal and child mortality as result of training 50,000 female community health volunteers to serve rural areas. Pakistan’s Lady Health Workers succeeded in immunizing 11 million women against tetanus infection during childbirth, cutting newborn tetanus deaths in half. And Ethiopia is already seeing results from its relatively new national plan to deploy female health extension workers to rural villages – immunization rates are up, malaria rates are down and more couples are using modern contraceptives.”  (4) As seen from this example, improving the situation of women throughout the world can have a long-lasting and far-reaching impact.  Outlined below are five social enterprises that are focused on improving the social status, health, and empowerment of women in the developing world.

Drishtee (5)

Drishtee is a social enterprise focused on empowering female entrepreneurs in rural India. Drishtee identifies a number of potential entrepreneurs and then trains them in specific skills.  Over the years, Drishtee has facilitated and supported a network of over 14,000 rural enterprises to cater to the critical needs of the base of the pyramid.

As a social enterprise, Drishtee works to create an impact in villages through micro-enterprises run by entrepreneurs with a specific focus on women. First, Drishtee identifies and creates a number of 'milkman routes' in a given district.  This direct rural supply chain network saves money and time for villagers and provides an effective channel for enterprises to sell products and services. In each route, Drishtee provides a kiosk-based platform to deliver services such as health, education, banking, microfinance, along with opportunities to provide market access and linkages for physical products such as mobile phones and agricultural products. Drishtee's implementation strategy rests on the core supply chain model it creates: once the route is economically viable, many critical services that have a positive social impact can utilize the same infrastructure.

SEWA Rural (6)

The Society for Education, Welfare and Action—Rural (SEWA Rural) has improved the health of Gujarat’s primarily tribal population for nearly three decades. Its Community Health Project on maternal mortality focuses on the development and replication of a community-based approach to health care delivery.  It provides health education and training to families, communities and front-line health workers—birth attendants, paramedics, doctors and students of medicine, social work, rural studies and health management—on maternal health issues. In addition, the organization manages a 100-bed hospital, and in 2003, established a “Family Centered Safe Motherhood and Newborn Care Project”.  In order to ensure all areas are serviced and raise awareness about maternal health, volunteers are dispatched to encourage families to actively prepare for all aspects of pregnancy (antenatal to postnatal). The results have been impressive: between 2003 and 2006, a set of interventions focused on residents from 168 villages reduced maternal mortality by 35% and neonatal morality by 21%.

RUWSEC (7)(8)

Rural Women's Social Education Center (RUWSEC) in Chingleput, South India, was initiated in 1981 by 10 village women.  These women came together because of their involvement in a nationwide literacy campaign in which they worked as literacy teachers in their respective villages. Through their work, the women realized their own worth and potential and felt committed to working with other women in their communities to change their exploited situation. The “animators”, as the local leaders of the program are called, help women understand their own and their communities' health problems and participate in their own healing. As a result of the efforts of RUWSEC, several villages requested the creation of women's centers, and the animators decided to extend their work to five more villages. Their goal is to build a grass-roots education community to give women greater control of their bodies by learning about sexual and reproductive rights.


The non-profit organization BRAC seeks to organize the isolated poor, understand their needs, pilot, refine and scale up practical ways to increase their access to resources, support entrepreneurship, and empower them to become active agents of change.  Today in Bangladesh alone, BRAC works to combat poverty in 70,000 villages and 2000 slums, and reaches three quarters of the entire population with an integrated package of services for rural and urban communities. BRAC employs more than 100,000 people - microfinance officers, teachers, health staff, and enterprise managers - to be on the doorstep of the poorest families making services accessible, relevant and adaptable.  

Women and girls have been the central focus of BRAC's anti-poverty approach, recognizing both their vulnerabilities and their crucial role as agents of change. Rural women are placed in a vulnerable position since employment opportunities are limited and they lack health care services, receive less nutrition, and are less educated than their male counterparts. Also, there is a growing number of female-headed households due to divorce, death of the male earner, and desertion and male migration. With all these factors in mind, BRAC focuses mainly on rural women, bringing about meaningful transformation in their lives by making small loans available to them for income generating activities. BRAC also provides livelihood development training, microfinance and social support to adolescent girls to help them prepare for adulthood and empower them to make their own choices for the future. Today, more than 98% of BRAC's 7.37 million borrowers and savers are women.

Freedom from Hunger (10)

Freedom from Hunger brings innovative and sustainable self-help solutions to the fight against chronic hunger and poverty. Freedom from Hunger's self-help programs invest in women and their determination to feed their children, safeguard their health and send them to school. The combination of microfinance, practical education, and access to health care, helps women earn and save more money, buy more and better food, and pay for health care.

Freedom from Hunger is one of the pioneers of microfinance for groups of women in very poor rural areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Knowing that microfinance is only part of the solution, Freedom from Hunger designed practical adult education programs that engage women at their microfinance group meetings for better health, nutrition, business and money management. To further add value to microfinance, Freedom from Hunger is now developing new ways to offer women access to healthcare services and medicines.


(1) Save the Children. (2015) "The Urban Disadvantage: State of the World's Mothers 2015." State of the World's Mothers 2015: The urban disadvantage | Resource Centre (

(2) "Poverty Reduction: A Little Credit Goes a Long Way." Bangkok Post. International Fund for Agricultural Development, 15 Feb. 2004.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Save the Children. (May 2010) "Women on the Front Lines of Health Care: State of the World's Mothers 2010."

(5) Drishtee: Connecting Communities Village by Village.

(6) "Society for Education Welfare and Action - Rural." MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions: 2007. MacArthur, 2007.

(7) Ravindran S. "Confronting Gender, Poverty and Powerlessness: an Orientation Programme for and by Rural Change Agents." Community Development Journal 20.3 (1985): 213-21. 

(9) Freedom from Hunger. "About Freedom from Hunger."