“Women in rural areas and lower income brackets stand to benefit the most from closing the gender gap.”
THE mobile phone is so ubiquitous; one can be forgiven for thinking that everyone has access to it.
But in developing countries there are millions who haven’t got a mobile phone and you guessed it, the majority of that group are women.
Last year, GSMA which represents about 800 mobile operators in 219 countries teamed up with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and undertook a study which culminated in the Women and Mobile: A Global Opportunity report downloadable from www.cherieblairfoundation.org.
Based on research in Kenya, Egypt, Bolivia and India, they found that a staggering 300 million women do not own a mobile phone translating into a commercial opportunity worth US$1.9 billion (close to M14 billion) in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
What this means is that the future growth of the mobile phone market is in the women’s segment.
So it is clear mobile phone operators are set to benefit from making inroads into the untapped market, but how do the women themselves benefit?
There are some not so obvious benefits to owning a mobile phone which have implications for women’s empowerment in general.
A boost for female literacy
In Pakistan, when the mobile phone company, Mobilink partnered with Unesco to use cellphones as a means of delivering educational materials to rural adolescent girls, their parents and community leaders were apprehensive.
The girls were given low cost handsets and attitudes soon changed when the guardians saw the nature of the text messages the girls were receiving and also how it was helping them with their assignments.
Women’s voices heard
When trying to gather women or get a message to them quickly, cellphones can make a difference.
At the time of drafting the constitution in Kosovo, Women for Women International was able to mobilise 250 women in 48 hours and their input at the forum helped to shape the constitution.
Mobiles can save lives
The study found that women in remote areas felt safer because they were able to keep in touch with the community.
Furthermore by giving rural women cellphones, the Orascom Lady Health Worker project in Pakistan is helping to reduce infant mortality as mothers are able to keep in touch with supervisors, health centres and ambulances.
For a few cents, farmers in Kenya are able to access Kencall’s Kenya Farmers Helpline “Huduma kwa Wakulima” for advice on farming and livestock strategies without having to travel or wait for an extension officer.
Almost 43 percent of these calls are from women farmers who are least likely to receive visits from extension workers.
For example farmers called to find out why their chickens were attacking each other and the “just in time information” was that the chickens were overcrowded.
Corporates can also empower women by giving them business opportunities.
Zain, a mobile operator in Saudi Arabia provided women with an opportunity to start a business in the mobile phone industry.
Thirty-eight women-owned businesses were established and they not only received raw materials but management and business training as well.
There are a number of
recommendations from this study which are applicable to developing countries such as Lesotho.
Firstly, the development community can promote and use the mobile phone as a tool in health, education and income generating initiatives.
Locally the Ministry of Gender, Youth Sport and Recreation is setting the trend by sending out text messages discouraging gender-based violence and human trafficking.
Secondly, policy makers can create incentives that encourage the development of mobile services that benefit women.
Finally, mobile phone operators can focus on women in their segmentation strategies and marketing tactics.
Bangladeshi mobile operator Banglalink came up with a product targeted at women and it had value-added services such as store discounts and cooking and first aid tips accessible via short message codes.
In Malaysia where mobile phone penetration is close to 100 percent with virtually no gender gap, operators had to focus
on increasing value-added services.
Her Maxis allows women to download content on lifestyle issues such as health, beauty, fashion and relationships.
So, clearly, by targeting women, mobile phone operators can increase demand in a competitive industry, thereby managing to close the gender gap and boost their bottom line.