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Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Henriette Kolb, head of the Gender Secretariat at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, and Olufemi Terry, communications specialist at the IFC Gender Secretariat.
Worldwide, fewer women than men use mobile phones. Addressing this gender disparity could not only benefit mobile operators, but is also critical to empowering women and improving health and education. Women with cell phones can access important development resources such as M-Pesa, a mobile money transfer solution that was launched in Kenya in 2007 and has since expanded to other countries. With support from the Vodafone Foundation, a Tanzanian hospital recently set up a health care service that uses M-Pesa to help women receive treatment for obstetric fistula – a child birth-related condition that affects one million women worldwide. The service, called Text to Treatment, deploys 400 rural “ambassadors” to find women in need. Following a referral, prospective patients receive transfers via M-Pesa for transport costs; and the ambassador also receives a reward. The program has helped almost 2,000 women get life-changing fistula operations.
Another program, Knowledge is Power, uses mobile technology to combat illiteracy in Egypt. Knowledge is Power has graduated over 94, 000 people, more than half of them women, using a free downloadable mobile application that enables learning through images and a talkback function. According to a recent Vodafone report, scaling up Knowledge is Power and similar mobile technology-based learning programs could improve the literacy of over seven million women worldwide. Literacy in turn enables women to become better workers, consumers, and entrepreneurs.
Mobile technology can also help women run their businesses. For example, the RUDI Sandesha Vyavhaar (RSV) mobile application allows rural Indian female retailers to place orders, track inventory, and manage their operations via sms. The tool was developed by the Self Employed Women’s Association, Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, and Vodafone Foundation in India. Since its introduction in January 2013, RSV has eliminated inefficiencies in stock management, increased women’s sales by as much as 300 percent, and boosted their incomes.
Closing the gender gap in mobile technology usage and ownership is a tremendous market opportunity for mobile operators: getting mobile phones to 90 million more women could contribute $6.6 billion in earnings and savings in the twenty-seven countries in which Vodafone operates. Furthermore, Vodafone’s study projects that the benefits of improved wellbeing and health from mobile access would equal an annual $200 million as a result of higher productivity and cost-savings by 2020. Boosting literacy through mobile applications could also add $3.4 billion annually in additional revenue. In the words of H.E. Sheikh Abdullah al Thani, chairman of the Ooredoo Group, “Women should have equal opportunity to use a mobile phone, and this is not just a social imperative but a commercial necessity.”