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mWomen: Where Mobile Tech and Women Intersect

By: Kate DiMercurio

If you’re active on Twitter you’ve probably come across the hashtag #mWomen. mWomen is a new tagline referring to mobile tools and programs centered on the needs of women, usually those living in developing countries.  Typical mWomen projects involve:

  • Woman_on_cellPromoting literacy and educational opportunities for girls and women through targeted SMS messages.
  • Improving access to health services and providing useful tips and advice to pregnant women, new mothers and families affected by HIV/AIDS or other communicable and non-communicable diseases alike through mobile channels.
  • Targeting female entrepreneurs, small business owners, and agricultural workers with relevant market information, up-to-date prices, weather reports, tips and advice for expanding their business or improving productivity.

For mWomen programs to take off, we need more women to be connected to the technology. At this time, roughly 300 million fewer women than men own mobile phones. This digital gender gap is greatest in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia; and it is a problem that development community and mobile operators alike must address.

Why Does This Matter?
Considering that women are 21% less likely to own a mobile phone than men, and since we have documented the very real and tangible economic benefits that can result from mobile phone ownership, we really ought to take a look at why this is, and what (if anything) should be done to address this mobile gender gap.

What Are the Barriers to Mobile Phone Ownership?
According to research conducted by San Francisco-based Vital Wave Consulting, the GSMA, and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, the top five factors that affect mobile phone ownership by women are:

  1. Household Income 
    Of women who participated in the survey, 80% of participants in the highest income brackets owned a mobile phone as compared to only 40% in the lowest income brackets. The biggest concern for women who did not already own a mobile phone was the cost of the handset followed by the monthly subscription costs.
  2. Rural vs. Urban Location 
    All other factors being equal, a rural woman is 23% less likely than her urban counterpart to own a mobile phone. Rural women on average also have lower incomes than urban women, and are not as exposed to technology on a regular basis. In rural areas, mobile phone retail locations may be sparse, if they exist at all, making it more difficult to access the technology even if they want to.
  3. Age 
    As we see in developed countries as well, younger users are much more likely to own and make more frequent use of their mobile phones. Older women cite feeling that they have no use for a mobile phone, especially if they already have a landline, or have gotten by for so many years without one. Age also contributes to one’s confidence in their ability to use the technology.
  4. Occupation 
    The majority of businesswomen own mobile phones regardless of age, location, or income; as do students and many agricultural workers now. Homemakers are the least likely to own a mobile phone and the most likely to cite the cost and seeing no use for a phone as the reason for not owning one.
  5. Education Level 
    Much as education level correlates to income level, so does it correlate to mobile phone ownership. The more educated a woman is, the more likely she is to own and use a mobile phone, and the more likely she is to know how to use the technology to improve her economic condition.

Kdimercurio_graphic


So What?
Across the board, the most common reasons for not owning a mobile phone were:

  • cost of handset and/or monthly subscription too high;
  • no perceived use for it, fear of not being able to use it; and
  • opposition from a family member or spouse. 

Any program that seeks to increase mobile participation by women needs to address these issues first.

Finally, in partnership with local developers, NGOs should be creating localized, relevant material and applications to use in their programming. Content that is relevant to the lives of women in their different cultural, religious, and political contexts still does not exist where mobile phone penetration is low, which means the development community should be investing in this area.

If we focus on closing the digital gender gap by promoting mobile use and ownership by women we could dramatically improve development impacts. This can only happen by first recognizing the barriers the prevent women from owning or using mobile phones and by engaging their friends and family members in the process. We must promote community buy-in, and provide sufficient incentives to encourage participation.  Let’s make this the focus of the mWomen movement.

Who is working on this in the Bay Area?
The Bay Area is already a driving force for this movement with plenty of organizations and individuals doing great work on the mWomen front. From the Global Fund For Women’s focus on “technology to advocate, connect, and increase awareness of key issues to support global women’s rights movements that are constantly learning, mobilizing and evolving” to The Asia Foundation, Medic Mobile and Living Goods, the emphasis on mWomen among Bay Area organizations is growing. Even organizations without a large Bay Area presence see the value of focusing on this topic from here, including CARE’s SF-based Senior Director of Strategic Partnerships and Alliances, Paul Towne, and local mover and shaker Ann Mei Chang, who has an impressive history of supporting the mWomen movement at the State Department and now with Mercy Corps.

These are just a few of the names influencing the mWomen movement in the Bay Area. More are popping up every day. Keep your eyes and ears open, this is just the beginning.

Do you know others we should be mentioning? Feel free to let us know in the comments!

A modified version of this post was originally published on ICTworks.

 

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Kate DiMercurio is a Vermont transplant in the Bay Area of California, a development and social change manager by training, and an #ICT4D enthusiast excited by the possibilities of using technology to create meaningful and sustainable social change. Check out her website or follow her on Twitter to learn more about topics like this!

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