Cellphones the front line for gender equality

Cellphones are key conduits to drive demand to vital services, such as health and financial services. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Cellphones are key conduits to drive demand to vital services, such as health and financial services. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

COMMENT

Today, 1.4-billion girls and women live in countries that are failing on gender equality, in areas ranging from education and decent work to health and violence. Yet one of the most effective ways to empower girls and women — safe and reliable access to cellphones and the internet — is in danger of being ignored.

Today, the GSMA — the global trade body for cellphone operators — estimates that more than five billion people have mobile devices, more than half of which are smartphones.

But the rapid diffusion of mobile technology has not been equal. Though the number of women from low- and middle-income countries who own cellphones has risen by some 250-million in just the last five years, there are still 184-million fewer women than men with cellphones, and women are 26% less likely than men to use the internet.

Similarly, though younger people own cellphones at a higher rate than their older counterparts, gender imbalances persist.
According to a 2018 study by Girl Effect, boys are 1.5 times more likely to own a phone than girls.

But ownership is not the same as access, and our investigations have revealed that girls often find ingenious ways to get their hands on cellphones. More than half of the girls interviewed — in India, Malawi and Tanzania — borrow phones from their parents, siblings and friends. Some share SIM cards and devices.

Given the benefits of internet access, this is good news. For example, a 14-year-old girl in rural Bangladesh, having never been taught about puberty, might skip school. But, during the two hours a week she is allowed to borrow her brother’s phone, she can learn about menstruation and pregnancy, and connect with a local health facility to arrange in-person advice and care. In other words, access to the internet gives her the knowledge and confidence she needs to protect her health — and her future.

Access to cellphones is not an end in itself. Rather, it is a way to level the playing field not only through knowledge, but also through connection.

Cellphones are key conduits to drive demand to vital services, such as health and financial services. Ensuring broad and equitable mobile access is thus a powerful, easily scalable way to help all people make informed decisions about their own lives, in areas ranging from health to education to employment.

Getting girls and women online is only the first step. We must also ensure that they have sufficient technical literacy to take full advantage of the devices they are using.

Moreover, we must consider what girls find when they get online. Is the information they are receiving accurate? Are they at risk of exploitation?

Girl Effect has been creating safe online spaces where girls can access reliable information, discover services in their area, and connect with others facing the same problems. The goal is to foster curiosity, boost self-confidence and empower girls.

For such platforms to make a difference, they need to be attractive to users.

When girls go online, they might be seeking not to learn, but to be entertained. We must offer experiences that are engaging and user-friendly. To this end, girls should be included in the design process.

Girls in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Malawi are already benefiting from such platforms, and Girl Effect is launching initiatives in India and Tanzania. Approaches are tailored to local needs and perspectives, and constantly re-evaluated, to account for changes in access and use.

There is no shortage of research on the benefits of gender equity. For example, raising female labour-force participation in India could add $56-billion to the country’s economy, making the workforce as a whole 27% richer. That would reduce fertility rates and enable higher investment in human capital, driving economic growth and development.

Governments and their partners must invest in technology-based initiatives that respond to the needs and preferences of girls and women. Creating safe, engaging and informative online platforms for them is a good place to start. — © Project Syndicate

Jessica Posner Odede is chief executive officer of Girl Effect

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