Women and mobile technology
On Friday, April 4, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) held its 2014 Global Women in Leadership Conference, which this year examined how technology is providing new opportunities for women. The conference, titled “Technology in Action: Changing the Way Women Live and Work”, also focused on how women are benefiting from the fact that technology not only improves service delivery, but also plays a major role in advancing their empowerment.
“The progress of women is a human progress”
In her keynote address to the conference, Kathy Calvin, CEO and President of the United Nations Foundation, said that as the modern world shrinks, opportunities multiply. She pointed out that technology is a specific tool that provides opportunities for women. Technology has paved the way for greater democratization and has revolutionized services, from banking and finance to education and healthcare. We are also seeing a shift in power that has ordinary citizens now coming up with solutions: bottom-up change is happening more than ever. Technology is the solution that will continue to empower girls and women and for this reason it is vital for the future. Because, as Calvin pointed out, the progress of women is a human progress.
Dr. E. William Colglazier, Science and Technology Advisor to the US Secretary of State, continued this line of thinking, stating that individual empowerment will accelerate due to poverty reduction, class growth world average, a higher level of education, the widespread use of new communications. and manufacturing technologies, and advances in healthcare.
Although transformative technology is not limited to information and communication technologies (ICT) – it also includes developments such as cleaner stoves or solar energy systems – the discussion at this event is is largely focused on mobile technologies. Mobile phones and tools have become popular in Africa. For example, M-Pesa, a mobile platform that has revolutionized access to banking services in rural areas, is often cited as a success story. Panelists at the event also cited initiatives such as MAMA (which provides important information via SMS and voice messages to pregnant women) and M-Farm (which informs rural farmers of market prices for their crops, warns them of good input prices and links to buyers), as important innovations for women.
These mobile technologies can also give women a louder voice and more control, especially in business. A report funded by ExxonMobil and the Cherie Blair Foundation argues that cell phones with additional services are the best tools for empowering women and increasing productivity for female business owners. In fact, the survey claims that female micro-entrepreneurs believe in mobile solutions to challenges: 82% of female entrepreneurs surveyed were willing to pay for additional services via mobile phones.
Are ICTs gender neutral in Africa?
Importantly, panelists at the event noted that there is still a substantial gender gap in ICT in developing countries. While mobile phone penetration is very high in Africa, at almost 80%, women in sub-Saharan Africa are on average 23% less likely to own a mobile phone, according to a GSMA report. The report also notes that one of the main obstacles to women’s access to mobile phones is affordability: expensive ICTs are reserved for use by men and women tend to buy second-hand phones. Technology is seen as a tool for men, so it appears that culture and attitudes towards ownership of productive assets may still be barriers to women’s access to technology.
Despite these remaining obstacles, these success stories of the transformative power of technology give us hope for dealing with the complex web of adversities that Africans, especially African women, face.