Mobile access is on the rise, but women have been left out of those advancements so important to providing financial services to developing communities.
Women are 21 percent less likely to own a phone than a man in developing nations. Without a phone, women are unable to access mobile money, making it more difficult to own a bank account and apply for microloans. Without a reliable financial structure, women are forced to sell valuable assets like sheep and goats to pay for sudden financial costs.
The mobile development community is aware that this gender gap exists and has kickstarted a number of programs to help. Alongside the moral prerogative to close the gender gap, mobile vendors also saw they could make serious economic gains by marketing and selling mobile phones to women. Here, we profile a few of the mobile providers that are ahead of the game with female-targeted programs.
Women of Uganda Network
Women of Uganda Network focused on using mobile phones to complement existing communication structures. Women working in agriculture had formed support groups that gathered to listen to farming radio programs. When the Women of Uganda Network launched their program, they worked with 12 such groups, providing them with a mobile phone and a radio player.
Because voice calls are expensive in Uganda, the organization taught women how to use SMS to communicate. Armed with mobile phones and the radio, the groups were able to interact with the radio programs and with other women’s groups. They traded farming techniques by dialing in on the radio or texting other groups. And they saw the benefits -- one group even saw its goat herd increase from six to 40!
Women are now invested in these new tools. Women of Uganda Network initially provided free calls for the first six months, but because calls proved so useful the groups are now purchasing airtime to use alongside SMS. Women of Uganda Network has shown that quick mobile adaption can happen if there’s a conscious attempt to blend mobile into existing methods of communication.
The Jokko Initiative by Tostan and UNICEF
Progress in closing the mobile access gender gap in Senegal has been hindered by illiteracy -- both technical and basic reading and writing.
Tostan, a local NGO, and UNICEF realized that poor training had a large part to play in low mobile phone adoption. Their two year pilot program, Jokko, which tackles tech illiteracy through training sessions to that teach how phones work. Trainers use common images, like the branches of a mango tree, to explain how phone menus work. By using local context, trainers can explain more complex ideas, like sending messages from phone-to-phone or sending a message to a central server that disseminates it to the network.
In order to combat illiteracy, Jokko is increasing the sheer amount of reading material to ensure that women, who comprise more than 80 percent of Jokko members, have a way to consistently practice their literacy skills. Users access a central messaging system to send messages of births, deaths, and other community issues. The hope is that community message board style of messaging will build stronger communities and organically form networks to tackle common problems.
Citizen Centre Enterprises by Uninior and Hand in Hand
Uninor, a mobile operator in India, and Hand in Hand, an NGO that focuses on women’s empowerment, partnered to close the mobile gender gap in India with a pilot mobile marketing program.
Hand in Hand chose 50 women from its network, based on education, loan repayment records, and low incomes. These women then purchased mobile products and resold them in their hometowns at a higher price. Uninor provided the mobile products and sales training, while Hand in Hand filled in any other gaps of information, such as legal rights.
The program had a few setbacks from government policies and health issues, but overall it was a success. Women who participated in the program were empowered by their new revenue stream. Out of the 50 women in the pilot program, 32 were still running their businesses after a year. Despite fewer women selling mobile products, the actual number of mobile products sold rose.
The program had social benefits, as well as financial benefits. Saraswathy, an entrepreneur from the pilot program, successfully increased her income from $35 a month to $100 a month in 11 months. After seeing her success, her husband demanded that she transfer the business to his name. With the knowledge that she could run her own business and provide her own income, Saraswathy refused her husband’s demands and left her husband. This was a major move in Saraswathy’s conservative town, but her success as a businesswoman has made her a community leader and a career counselor for local students.
From receiving mobile phones to selling mobile phones, women are benefiting from the wave of programs targeted to their needs. With mobile programs focused on women’s education, women’s safety, and working around the cultural barrier making women ownership of mobile phones taboo, the hope is that the gender gap in mobile access will cease to exist.
And with access to mobile phones, women can stay plugged into the latest advances in agriculture and market shifts. Not only will women be able to make more money, they’ll be able to keep it safer by with mobile financial services. With the advances in mobile access, women soon will no longer have to turn to selling a goat or a sheep to cover a sudden financial crisis.