This blog originally appeared on the Million Moms Challenge blog.
As a mom, you’re likely to already understand the usefulness of a cell phone – from the convenience of your partner letting you know they’ll be late for dinner to the peace of mind that comes from ensuring your kids are safe and easy to find. Whereas the cell phone is one of several pieces of technology in our lives in the U.S., for many in the developing world, such as in Africa or South Asia, the cell phone is the first and only communication tool, as there are rarely computers or landlines. And the nearest hospitals, schools or banks are often hours if not days away, making the cell phone the primary way people in the developing world can easily access critical services.
However, women – particularly those living on less than $2/day — are not benefiting from cell phone technology equally to men. Our research found that a woman in a low- to middle-income country is 21% less likely to own a cell phone than a man. This cell phone gender gap represents at least 300 million women in the developing world without access to this potentially life-enhancing tool.
To address this gender gap, the GSMA, which represents the interests of the global cell phone industry, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) and many others are working together through a public-private partnership.
As part of our work, we asked women who represented the cell phone gender gap – those who did not own a phone – how they felt a cell phone could benefit their lives. 80% reported it would help them be better connected to friends and family, 58% said it would be useful in an emergency, 40% said it would cut down on travel time, 18% said it would help them with their businesses and 15% believed it would help them feel secure.
When both time and money are scarce resources, tools – such as cell phones — which can preserve either are of huge, practical benefit.
As one of the women we spoke to in Egypt said, “I wait for people who need women to work on their farms to call me, and feel extremely thankful that I am reachable.”
Another woman from Uganda said, “Before I had a cell phone it was very difficult to know what was happening with my relatives in the village my husband could only give me permission twice a year to visit them… now I feel closer to them since I can talk to them…”
However, in order for women living on less than $2/day to truly benefit from cell phones, they must both know how to use them and be allowed to do so effectively.
83% of the 2,500+ women we surveyed had not completed high school and 31% had no formal education at all. As women in developing countries have less access to education, it is only natural that they are less comfortable navigating new technologies. In fact, of those who did not want to own a cell phone, 22% said the main reason was that they “wouldn’t know how to use it.”
Social stigma attached to women’s ownership and regular use of cell phones is another obstacle that needs to be overcome. 74% of married women who did not want a cell phone said it was because their husbands would not allow it and 64% of married women who did own one said it made their husbands suspicious. As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted at the launch of the GSMA mWomen Program, there is at times an “all-too-common belief that cell phones afford more freedom to women than they deserve.”
The GSMA mWomen Program works with partners in the cell phone industry and the U.S. and Australian governments, to identify ways to close this technology gender gap in the developing world in order to change women’s lives. Our collective goal is to create products and services that meet women’s real, lived needs, and support them in tackling their challenges and achieving their hopes and dreams. We want to enable them not only to survive, but also to thrive.