Feed Her a Line: Bridging the Gender Digital Divide

By Carol Stewart 11-02-2010

On a short trip to Jordan in 2001, I remember my amazement when tent-dwelling Bedouins taught me about text messaging. Not only was SMS new to me, but the rapid penetration of mobile-phone technology (just a year after I'd purchased my own first cell phone) and the tech-savvy nomadic sheep herders was astounding.

Over the last decade, cell phone subscriptions have skyrocketed (4.6 billion as of February 2010) and recent innovations have converted simple phones into powerful tools for the developing world by providing grassroots solutions to a number of basic needs and enabling civil society through platforms such as:

  • Mobile money, which turns SIM cards into bank accounts
  • Sproxil, an application that allows end-users to fight drug counterfeiting
  • Ushahidi which enables instant aggregation and mapping of information transmitted via SMS for crisis response
  • FrontlineSMS, a mass two-way SMS platform for raising public awareness and conducting surveys

With new, creative uses for cell phones continually emerging, this simple but powerful technology has become an essential tool for providing basic needs and enabling those living on less than $2 per day to access information and services not otherwise available. Furthermore, if appropriately harnessed, mobile technology could be key to advancing effective solutions to gender inequalities and mitigating women's rights violations, including problems such as gender-based violence or the unequal participation of women in political and economic spheres.

Women, however, are being left behind. Women are 21 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone in the developing world. In an effort to combat this gender digital divide, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently launched the mWomen initiative -- a partnership between the U.S. State Department and the GSM Association. This initiative responds to the opportunity identified by the Women and Mobile Report which found that:

  • 93 percent of women reported feeling safer because of their mobile phone
  • 85 percent of women reported feeling more independent because of their mobile phone
  • 41 percent of women reported having increased income and professional opportunities once they owned a mobile phone
  • Women in rural areas and lower income brackets stand to benefit the most from closing the gender gap

Its very exciting to see our State Department engaged with the for-profit sector to stimulate the development of appropriate technologies that can have profound impacts at a grassroots level on the poorest and most marginalized populations in our world today.

So for all you app developers out there, here's your chance to join the challenge to get meaningful apps into the hands of women at the bottom of the pyramid: the mWomen BOP App Challenge. And the next time I head overseas, I look forward to learning a thing or two from the women I encounter about creative new applications for cell phones.

Carol Stewart is completing a masters degree in International Development at Tulane University after working as an engineer for six years for Shell Oil. She spent the last three years in Brazil where she decided to shift her focus towards appropriate technologies and market-based approaches to development.

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