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Mobile Phones for Women: A New Approach for Social Welfare in the Developing World

Telecoms, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and nonprofits are pushing to put mobile phones directly in the hands of women in low- and middle-income countries



copyright David Snyder for ICRW

Enas Salameh, a 24-year-old college graduate living in the Palestinian West Bank city of Jenin, needed a job this summer. But her family finds it unacceptable for a woman to venture alone into the city without a male companion or an appointment. Fortunately, it's fine to use a mobile phone. In fact, although only 16 percent of Palestinian households have Internet access, 81 percent have a cell phone, according to a 2009 United Nations report. Salameh was thus able to sign up for a text message–based job-matching program sponsored by a service called Souktel. She posted a "mini-resume," browsed for suitable jobs via text messages, and then interviewed in person after an appointment was set. On September 22nd, she started a data-entry job with the German aid agency GTZ.

Although the job does not take advantage of her training in physical therapy, "this is better than staying at home," she says through a translator, "and I think that I am gaining new experiences to be a useful woman in my community." Without mobile phones, says Souktel co-founder Jacob Korenblum, a lot of the approximately 750 women worldwide who have work through the program would still be unemployed.

Mobile technology was available to Salameh, but that's often not the case for women. A 2010 report by London-based telecom industry advocacy group GSMA (for Groupe Speciale Mobile Association) and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women found a "mobile gender gap" in low- and middle-income countries: women are 21 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone. The rate is highest in Asia, at 37 percent. Once they get phones women nearly uniformly report feeling safer, more connected and more independent. Nearly half say the phones help increase income and professional opportunities.

So, in October GSMA launched the "mWomen Program," with support from Cherie Blair and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ("mWomen" is for mobile women). The goal is to half the number of women in the developing world who lack mobile phones within three years by putting phones in the hands of another 150 million women.

GSMA's mWomen working group met in Chennai, India, in early November. Twenty-three organizations, including the telecom Ericsson, representing 115 developing countries committed to the project. And the program's recently announced "app challenge"—which solicits apps for simple cell phones and smart phones that can help to address the needs of women living at the "base of the pyramid" in the developing world—has received dozens of entries, including one from Souktel.

But first, women need the phones to run these apps. The working group is therefore examining various business models and marketing tools to overcome cultural, educational and financial barriers. So far, ideas include using direct marketing models similar to those developed by Avon or Tupperware to put women in charge of selling to women and hire only women to serve as customer service representatives for telecoms' female customers, says Trina DasGupta, mWomen program director at GSMA.

Going mobile, skipping computers
Mobile phones are nothing new in the developing world. Nonprofit agencies and NGOs have known for years how to partner effectively with telecommunications companies to deliver social goods such as cash payments to locals via mobile phones. The new challenge is getting the technology directly and specifically into the hands of women, rather than focusing on families. In the latter case the devices typically become male property, and women never touch the phones.

Many women in the developing world, especially those living in more restrictive cultures, are impoverished, semiliterate or illiterate and may rarely leave home alone to avoid the risk of shaming the family. The mWomen movement aims to improve the social welfare of women and their families via mobile technology—more effectively, perhaps, than if the phones and apps were in men's hands. Women are using phones for activities ranging from calling their husbands who may work far away to obtaining health care for their children to running small businesses to reporting violence.

The mWomen approach is no cure-all for gender inequality or poverty. Still, a growing body of research supports the power of information and communications technology (ICT), including mobile phones and related jobs, in promoting women's advancement and overall economic progress. A January 2010 report by the International Center for Research on Women identified success stories for nine technologies that have been integrated into programs to help women advance economically—four of them involve ICT: training women in technical and career skills to enter the ICT labor force; village mobile phones to help female entrepreneurs; outsourced ICT services that provide job opportunities for women; and ICT call centers or kiosks that help them start small businesses. Recognizing women as more than end-users of the technology is key to successful projects.

The proliferation of mobile phones is also renewing enthusiasm among many people who work in the fields of social welfare and social justice as well as providing new inroads for breaking down a worldwide technology gender gap.

"Mobile technology is relatively simple and is more accessible to women," says Katrin Verclas, co-founder and editor of MobileActive.org, a network of NGO and other program directors and managers who use mobile technology for social impact. "And the barrier to use is much lower—it's not as intimidating compared to computers. The intimidation factor for poor and possibly only semiliterate women for a computer versus a mobile phone is completely different by an order of magnitude."

Mobile technology also scales up for large populations in ways that social programs rarely achieve (although small-scale programs can be ideal for reaching highly marginalized or rural populations). "You can only build so many clinics, you can only send so much money. They need more solutions. The mobile phone is a solution to deliver basic services at scale at a much lower cost than it would to build out 100,000 clinics, per se," DasGupta says.

mWomen app pioneers
Dozens of mWomen programs and apps already exist in the field, often conceived and implemented by local women. Program directors, organizers and field workers are comparing notes and sharing strategies via the GSMA, online bulletin boards and in-person gatherings such as a tech salon in New York City organized in September by MobileActive.

Attendees at the New York event learned of a recent pilot program in Africa to introduce cell phones and a text message–driven community bulletin board in 15 villages in Senegal that helped local women post messages and share educational information about malaria. The villages lack running water and electricity, but 58 percent of residents had used a mobile phone. Staffers with the Jokko Initiative trained locals how to navigate the bulletin board by mapping its phone tree—with labeled sticks on the ground. The bulletin board and phones freed the women of the need for men to read and type their messages for them. Erica Kochi, part of the initiative via Jokko-partner United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), says that women's literacy and numeracy went up as they used the phones to share information and calculate savings at the market.

Anne Roos-Weil described Pesinet, a women-run mobile service she co-founded that brings health care to infants in Mali—where one in five children dies before age five, usually from malaria, measles or respiratory diseases—along with other countries in Africa. For a monthly fee of $1 (equivalent to a day's wages), subscribers are visited weekly at home by a Pesinet agent who weighs newborns and asks the mother questions about diarrhea, fever and other health matters. The agent sends the data via a Java mobile phone app to a server accessed by nearby doctor who assesses the child's health. The doctor then recommends a visit to the clinic if necessary, where the child receives a free medical exam and half-price medication for the diseases that kill most children.

Pesinet's subscription base has increased 70 percent since January, and subscribers almost uniformly find it affordable and satisfying. But it needs to double its enrollment to 1,000 subscribers to cover its expenses.

Funding for nonprofits and NGOs can be unstable and subject to the whims of donor nations and individuals. Enter telecommunications companies, along with their customer bases and business models. Telecoms can build a program aimed at social welfare that will take as long as a decade to pay for itself, long after a start-up's donor patience or grant money might run out.

"Telcos have to think of the business angle as well as the social angle," says Shainoor Khoja, managing director for social programs for Roshan, the leading telecommunications service provider in Afghanistan, with 3.8 million active subscribers. "Sometimes NGOs seem to focus on the social angle only, which is their role, without something being sustainable. It's a real problem." Roshan is 51 percent owned by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, so it balances mandates for development and profitability. The company was the first in Afghanistan to post a billboard that featured a picture of a woman.

"Straight-out business-wise we are firm believers that putting a mobile phone in the hands of every woman and girl is essential," Khoja says. "We see the mobile phone as not just one communication tool—we see it as much more. Because the minute you put a voice phone in the hands of the woman, you empower her and also give her access to financial services, information, literacy, safety to pursue a livelihood—a whole variety of things that you and I would take for granted, because we have a phone."

Along these lines, Roshan has established 170 "women's public call centers" in Afghanistan, where women with phones purchased via a Roshan-sponsored microfinance loan set up a small business to broker calls and sell airtime to women without phones. The country already has 6,000 public call centers, all run by men. The women's public call centers solve a number of problems at once—women can avoid the shame and danger of entering a male-run call shop alone; they can call their husbands who often work out of town; and female agents who sell their airtime bring a second income to their family as well as gain financial and business management skills.

Mobile phones are particularly valuable to Afghan women during childbirth, when a midwife or doctor may have to be called. Afghanistan has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world, and as of 2004 women there bore an average of seven children.

Some nonprofits are figuring out ways to build on telecoms' existing services. For instance, MTN, a telecom in South Africa, offers free "please-call-me" text messages. After being beeped or signaled, a party calls back the person who sent the message, saving the original sender the expense of the call. Seeing an opportunity, the nonprofit Praekelt Foundation negotiated with MTN to advertise an AIDS hotline number and other services in the white space at the bottom of one million of these free messages daily. Call volume on the hotline tripled, and operators assisted with information, counseling and referrals to clinics—no small achievement in a nation where AIDS-related mortality in women ages 20 to 39 recently tripled. This effort, which has reached more than 40 million people to date, was part of a project managed from a hospital in a district where 60 percent of pregnant women are HIV-positive.

Despite these advances, founder Gustav Praekelt is ambivalent about embracing the mWomen designation, although nearly all the mobile services his organization provides touch on women's issues. "'mWomen' is such a vague term," Praekelt says." What does it really mean? There are a host of things you can put under that topic. We work on a lot: gender, rape, abuse. These aren't simple questions, and building a simple app isn't going to have enough impact. We believe mobile works because it is so incredibly scalable. So our focus is to achieve really scalable projects. If a project can't ultimately reach up to one million people, we don't want to be involved. We have one billion people in Africa and 400 million phones, and that's what I want to focus on."

To this end, Praekelt announced a $825,000 grant last week from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar's Omidyar Network that will ultimately allow the foundation to extend its please-call-me hotline messaging service to reach up to 500 million people. And a mobile portal, hosted by the telecom Vodafone, will provide a free entertainment-oriented platform for youths to receive information and discuss their issues with love, sex, relations, gender, cultural constraints and HIV. The messaging service and discussion platform could reach half the population of Africa.

Social roadblocks
Cultural taboos still can retard mobile initiatives. The mobile community received a new shock last month when elders in the Lank village in the Uttar Pradesh state of India forbade unmarried women from using cell phones. They feared that the women were using phones to make plans to elope—a transgression that can result in a so-called honor killing. Young men and women have managed to flirt, rendezvous and elope for centuries before the arrival of mobile phones, but the Lank ban illustrates the remaining social tensions that surround women's growing use of mobile technology in parts of the developing world.

"The issue is not the phone itself," says GSMA's DasGupta. "The issue is about educating community elders on how the mobile phone has more positive benefits in terms of helping women have access to income-generating and education opportunities."

And MobileActive's Verclas notes that some philanthropists believe nonprofit donor dollars go further if you fund a project that focuses on women rather than on men. "There is now a lot of evidence that economic gains of women benefit communities," Verclas says. "So it is not just a woman who benefits. Her children, her community benefits. There is a radiating effect."

Both outsiders and insiders to the NGO world can be a bit hostile to the idea that women-headed agencies and organizations are delivering social welfare–tailored technology primarily or only to women. "When women huddle and talk to each other, there can be a little backlash," Verclas says. "But I come down hard and say that this is the prerogative of excluded communities. I'm unapologetic about that."

And there are larger social changes—attitude shifts—that can come about when women start to actively use mobile technology. Says Roshan's Khoja, "If you came to Afghanistan and saw how women just flip their phones on and communicate, and saw what men think of these women—they think highly of them, they think they are capable and bright. That kind of change is hard to come by."

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