Reflecting on Trainings for Rural Women in India: How Can We Ensure Effective Outcomes?

Urvashi Suraj, AIF Fellow (Photo courtesy of Urvashi Suraj)

Soon after joining my host organization as a Banyan Impact Fellow, I had the opportunity to manage a new livelihood project in three villages of the Tonk Khurd block in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh. Since my host organization had previously worked extensively with the communities on a dairy project, they were well acquainted with it. Most community members already owned cows for personal milk consumption and many had also started looking at it as a source of livelihood. As a result, the project’s main objective was to enhance women’s livelihoods by raising milk productivity and promoting by-products.

Phase 1 of the project entailed conducting training sessions to equip 90 Self Help Group (SHG) women with the necessary skills and information to sustain a livelihood in dairy. This being my first time managing a training project with as many participants, I spent a significant amount of time reading and discussing ideas to increase participation and minimize dropouts – the two main risks I’d anticipated for a training/livelihood program.

Given the multifaceted challenges they encounter, the fact that rural women were our target audience added yet another level of complexity. The pressure on rural women to abide by traditional female gender norms means that despite aspirational goals and a keen interest in programs designed for them, they are often faced with many social barriers in their pursuit of a decent livelihood.

As I reflect on my experience in these villages, I ask myself what went right, what went wrong, and how we can increase the effectiveness of training programs for women in rural India. Below are a few of my learnings:

Participant Selection and Mobilization

For smoother implementation, we conducted the training in three batches of 30 participants each with one batch in each village. Heeding the advice of previous project coordinators, I designed a consent form for all interested women to sign. Over the next few weeks, as we selected the 90 women, the team walked every potential candidate through the form and explained the project in brief. The idea was to ensure all participants felt a sense of accountability and knew exactly what they were signing up for, what the objective of the program was, and how we intended to collaborate with them over the course of the year.

The team walking interested SHG members through the consent form (Photo courtesy of: Pawan Chandulal)

To our disappointment, only around 30% of the women who had signed up actually turned up on day 1 of the training, despite multiple reminders. None of us had anticipated such a low turnout. We were pretty confident that getting applicants to sign the form after gauging their levels of interest would result in near-perfect attendance. In hindsight, it was far from a foolproof plan. Strong liaisoning and existing connections with the community, fortunately, meant we were able to find more willing participants to fill the gap.

But that had us wondering how many women we would need to register to ensure we fill all seats. Our collective assumption as a team was 130% of our capacity – so after batch 1, we quickly pivoted to signing up more women than we could train. We registered and invited 45+ women to ensure 30 showed up. By batch 3, finally, we had well over 30 participants join us! Although ratios may vary, we learned that it might be best to reach for the moon and land among the stars when it comes to participant attendance. Other strategies that helped were door-to-door visits, frequent in-person reminders, and approaching key influencers in the community like the Sarpanch and Anganwadi workers to help spread the word.

In-Class Demonstrations to Increase Engagement

Dairy and agriculture are tied closely to one another. So in addition to sessions on livestock care and agri-allied activities, we also had a workshop arranged on the use of cow waste in preparing organic fertilizers like vermicompost and jeevamrut (a natural liquid fertilizer).

Trainer, Pooja Yadav conducting a session on vermicompost (Photo courtesy of: Vikas Jat)

With the growing demand and popularity of organic produce in the market, we were aware that these skills, once mastered, could be an additional source of income for rural women.

While the other sessions were largely limited to the classroom-like setting, the ones on vermicompost and jeevamrut were demonstrated by entrepreneurs who ran a business selling organic fertilizers and similar products.

The demonstration allowed participants to visualize the process better and clarify questions on even the smallest details like the optimal height of a vermibed, the consistency of the cow dung, and the level of shade and sunlight required. We found that this led to a more engaging, interactive discussion and higher information retention.

Strength in Unity

About five years ago, my host organization began operations in 18 villages of Tonk Khurd – helping form around 170 SHGs. Even today, their proudest success stories are about the change in women’s confidence over the years – how initially, most women wouldn’t get out of their houses for meetings, let alone speak at them, but today they won’t hesitate to share ideas or demand information on their entitlements.

An engaging discussion on the importance of a financial footprint. (Photo courtesy of the author)

SHGs were conceptualized to empower women in rural India by encouraging savings and facilitating access to formal credit through the power of the collective. Usually made up of 10-20 women from similar socio-economic backgrounds, SHGs come together at regular intervals to deposit money into a group bank account. As they mature, they also gain access to credit linkages as a group. Over time the roles of SHGs expanded to also discuss and address social issues.

I wonder if it’s the same collective strength that makes approaching an SHG a lot more fruitful than reaching out to members individually when selecting participants.

Participants taking the pre-test. (Photo courtesy of the author)

While this sense of community occasionally worked against us during the pre and post-assessments (thanks to groupthink), I noticed how more often than not, the participants would feed off the energy of the group – whether with respect to recognition on WhatsApp groups following the training or engagement during sessions.


This experience has been a humbling reminder of how important it is to have a thorough understanding of the local context of a project. Although it’s convenient to assume what has worked on one project will work for another, there’s hardly ever a one-size-fits-all approach. So I suppose my biggest takeaway has been the value of facilitating informal and candid discussions with target groups in customizing the implementation of programs. Such conversations can provide us with valuable insights into the group’s unique needs, motivations, and challenges. This is essential to help structure training programs to be as meaningful as they can be for the intended participants.

Kumar, N., Raghunathan, K., Arrieta, A., Jilani, A., & Pandey, S. (2021). The power of the collective empowers women: Evidence from self-help groups in India. World Development, 146.

Oxfam GB January 2014, Quick Guide to Promoting Women’s Participation’s-participation-300114-en.pdf;jsessionid=7FD88FEEEAA86B978AD5904BBF9D08C9?sequence=1



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