Unlocking Access to Phones & Economic Opportunities
Technology – and access to the internet – can be a great enabler for girls and women. Through the use of mobile phones, girls and women can access digital education tools, community services such as healthcare, banking, and new economic opportunities. According to Intel, if 600 million women were connected to the internet in 3 years, this would translate to a rise in global GDP of between US$13 billion and US$18 billion.
Unfortunately, despite evidence revealing the social and economic benefits of increasing women’s access to mobile phones, over 1.7 billion women in low and middle-income countries do not own mobile phones.
To achieve gender equality and boost women’s economic empowerment, we must close this gap. But how? Deliver for Good Partners spoke with Hannah Skelly, Program Manager for the Mobile Solutions, Technical Assistance and Research (mSTAR) project at FHI 360, to better understand the recently released Gender and ICT Survey Toolkit and its contribution to efforts to economically empower girls & women through mobile tools and technologies.
Question: What are the most important ways mobile phones can be used to economically empower girls and women?
Answer: Gaining access to a mobile phone, and the skills needed to make full use of it, can greatly increase a woman’s independence and control over who she engages with and how. Through increased access to mobile technologies, women can also be empowered through financial inclusion – mobile banking services and savings accounts – and access to information about health, education, news, and economic opportunities.
The evidence base exploring the link between mobile phone access and women’s economic empowerment is growing. ExxonMobil and the Cherie Blair Foundation released a report arguing that mobile phones – with added services – are among the best tools for women’s economic empowerment and productivity.
Additional research is uncovering ways mobiles can increase agricultural earnings and productivity through access to market information; increase employment through job information campaigns; contribute to positive investment decisions through increased privacy; and facilitate women’s entry into the formal economy with an increased ability to manage her family’s finances effectively.
As access to mobile technologies increases, more research is needed to demonstrate the impact these services can have on economic opportunities for women, their families, and their communities.
Question: What is the “digital gender divide” and the barriers that prevent women from having equal access to mobile tools and technologies?
Answer: Practitioners implementing development and humanitarian programs are constantly encouraged to take advantage of the digital revolution and mobile technologies. Unfortunately, a significant digital divide remains between those who can and cannot access and make full use of mobile technologies. The difference in access between men and women is particularly pronounced in many contexts, demonstrating a clear “digital divide” across genders.
In 2014/2015, the GSMA Connected Women program conducted a large survey in low-and-middle income countries revealing that women are 14% less likely than men to own mobile phones. As the GSMA report and the Toolkit highlight, this gap varies widely by context, as do the potential impacts the gap has on women’s economic empowerment.
It is a global problem that is not only persistent but growing. Across countries, cost is still a major barrier – in many cases the cost of basic 2G or 3G service can equal one-third or half of a household’s monthly income. When affordability is adjusted for women’s earnings, cost becomes even more prohibitive. Other factors limiting access include safety concerns, digital literacy, confidence, and social norms which are often a deeply rooted barrier in many communities. In some communities, for example, the use of a mobile is deemed inappropriate for girls and women.
Question: What is the Gender and ICT Survey Toolkit and how can it help to address the gender digital divide?
Answer: An in-depth understanding of women’s access to and use of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) is critical for the design of effective projects seeking to leverage or increase access to mobile phones. Unfortunately, the data needed to understand the realities of mobile use in communities – including challenges and opportunities – is often non-existent, considered proprietary, or not specific enough to help organizations working in rural or traditionally underserved areas. This lack of data also makes it difficult to track changes in access and usage over time.
To fill this gap, FHI 360 collaborated with the Digital Inclusion team at the USAID Global Development Lab, to develop the Gender and ICT Toolkit. Released as part of series of interventions to address the digital gender divide, the Toolkit provides an easy-to-use data collection guide with practical, well-researched resources for assessing women’s access to and use of mobile phones and other connected devices in a variety of contexts. The resources include tools for collecting both quantitative and qualitative data – all focused on the user perspective and experience.
By providing resources for assessing the digital gender divide and identifying root causes, the Toolkit can help organizations to identify appropriate tools and technologies for delivering unique services to a community, from rolling out a maternal health messaging campaign to launching a mobile banking program, for example.
The Toolkit is now available for download and will soon include a version of each survey module in a form compatible with digital data collection software.
Readers should stay tuned for more gender and ICT resources and initiatives coming from USAID, including a Gender and ICT online course, developed by mSTAR and Panoply Digital, and the recently announced WomenConnect Challenge.
Question: As we look toward the upcoming World Economic Forum in Davos, what is the role of the private sector in unlocking women’s access to mobile phones and the technology needed to increase economic opportunities?
Answer: There is a huge opportunity for the private sector to help connect more women through ICT. Mobile operators, service providers, content creators and device manufacturers have a seemingly endless list of potential avenues for addressing barriers that may help to unlock women’s access – experimenting with affordable voice and data pricing schemes for women and men; designing digital skills building products and initiatives; generating localized and relevant content; cultivating women in leadership programs within the industry; and ensuring consumer protection to mitigate harassment and security concerns, among others.
The private sector can also contribute to our collective efforts to address the shortage of available data on the digital gender divide through cross sector collaboration with the development community to analyze subscriber data and publicly report usage by gender.
And there is a return on investment for the private sector working to increase women’s access to mobile technologies in developing countries. In the short-term, industry estimates value the market opportunity of women’s phone ownership in low- and middle-income countries in the hundreds of billions of dollars. In the long-term, gaining brand loyalty and recognition from an untapped consumer segment could reap many future financial (and social) dividends.
No single stakeholder has the keys to close the gender digital divide. To achieve this goal, we must collaborate across sectors and develop resources – including the Toolkit – and targeted approaches that will contribute to the effort.
Hannah Skelly is a Program Manager for the Mobile Solutions, Technical Assistance and Research (mSTAR) program in the Digital Development Unit at FHI 360. For the past ten years, Skelly has worked with donors, private partners and governments to provide technical support, lead project design and implement programs in education, health and ICT4D. Her current work with mSTAR focuses on digital health interventions and digital inclusion research activities, ranging from a large-scale study on mobile access and use in Mozambique to a macro-level assessment of innovative business models to bridge the digital divide.
Prior to joining FHI 360, Skelly managed a portfolio of grants programs for USAID and CAMRIS International and supported operations, data analytics and reporting for early-grade reading and educational assessment at the American Institutes for Research. She began her career focusing on teacher training and curriculum development for international studies at the Southern Center for International Studies (World Affairs Councils of America).
Skelly has an MA in Development Economics from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a BA in History and Political Science from Emory University.