Background: This study examines associations between female participation in a microcredit program in India, known as self help groups (SHGs), and women's health in the south Indian state of Kerala. Because SHGs do not have a formal health program, this provides a unique opportunity to assess whether SHG participation influences women's health via the social determinants of health.
Methods: This cross-sectional study used special survey data collected in 2003 from one Panchayat (territorial decentralized unit). Information was collected on women's characteristics, health determinants (exclusion to health care, exposure to health risks, decision-making agency), and health achievements (self assessed health, markers of mental health). The study sample included 928 non elderly poor women.
Results: The primary finding is that compared to non-participants living in a household without a SHG member, the odds of facing exclusion is significantly lower among early joiners, women who were members for more than 2 years (OR = 0.58, CI = 0.41-0.80), late joiners, members for 2 years and less (OR = 0.60, CI = 0.39-0.94), and non-participants who live in a household with a SHG member (OR = 0.53, CI = 0.32-0.90). We also found that after controlling for key women's characteristics, early joiners of a SHG are less likely to report emotional stress and poor life satisfaction compared to non-members (OR = 0.52, CI = 0.30-0.93; OR = 0.32, CI = 0.14-0.71). No associations were found between SHG participation and self assessed health or exposure to health risks. The relationship between SHG participation and decision-making agency is unclear.
Conclusion: Microcredit is not a panacea, but could help to improve the health of poor women by addressing certain issues relevant to the context. In Kerala, SHG participation can help protect poor women against exclusion to health care and possibly aid in promoting their mental health.