Achieving gender equality through mobile phones

Photo: StockSnap.com

Technology is a male-dominated industry. Not only are tech start-ups mostly run and managed by men, but access to technological devices such as mobile phones is much more limited for women in areas of Asia and Africa than it is for men.

Access to mobile is fundamental to achieving gender equality. At the last Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, an event attended by many more men than women, the conference on Connected Women was a gem. Sonia Jorge, Executive Director at the Alliance for Affordable Internet, stated that in urban poor areas, there is a larger gender gap, where one woman owns a mobile phone for every three men, and women are 50% less likely than men to use the Internet. An interesting example of these trends is India, where it is 37% less likely for a woman to have a mobile phone. India, where last February the village of Suraj banned unmarried women and girls to have mobile phones under threat of fine for those caught with one. The excuse behind it was to allow girls to focus on their studies and to help them avoid being misguided.

The importance of owning a mobile phone, especially in the mentioned poor urban areas, is essential. “A mobile phone makes you feel safe,” says May Ellen Iskenderian, President of the Women’s World Banking, who also assures that “personal and financial security is related to access to mobile”. This access would allow women to have things as essential as confidentiality on their finances. Iskenderian’s statement becomes especially relevant in a time where mobile payments keep rising in both rich and poor countries. In Kenya, for example, 53% of men say they have sent mobile money in the past, whereas only 39% of women recognize to have done so.

The concern is not only for the limitations encountered by women when trying to access mobile technology, but also for the lack of information on mobile services. In some of these countries, technology is seen as a thing for men, and women feel uncomfortable in situations where they have to ask a man about their options. This is why, as part of GSMA’s Connected Women Commitment Initiative, more women are being hired as sales agents, as a measure to also increase the presence of female customers.

Because of this situation, in order to achieve greater gender equality and to empower women and girls, the Connected Women Commitment Initiative aims to connect millions of women in low and middle-income areas by 2020. To do so, they are already working with operators in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia and Rwanda. Tongai Maramba, CEO of the operator Tigo Rwanda, says that “Increasing women’s access to mobile financial services will in turn allow them to improve their quality of life, that of their families and that of their communities.” That is also one of the goals of the GSMA, which estimated that achieving greater gender equality on access to mobile could mean unlocking up to a $170 billion market opportunity for the industry by 2020.

After acquiring all this information, the question is, are we holding back economic development by perpetuating gender inequality in areas like access to technology? The GSMA estimates that there are currently 200 million fewer women than men owning a mobile phone. And even those who do are far less likely to access services such as mobile Internet or mobile money, services that would clearly increase their socio-economic opportunities.