About the Author: Irene Marr serves in the Office of Global Women's Issues.
At last week's launch of the GSMA mWomen Program, a project initiated by the GSMA Development Fund, Secretary Clinton announced U.S. support for building public-private partnerships to advance mobile technology for women in the developing world and to close the global gender gap that prevents hundreds of millions of women from gaining access to this technology. The event was enlightening, inspiring, and energizing. The GSMA mWomen Program aims to halve, in three years, the number of women who have been left on the sidelines of the “mobile revolution.” The Secretary put a needed and welcome spotlight on the potential of mobile technology as a powerful tool for lifting women out of poverty, unleashing their talent, and creating networks of empowerment. As she said, “...We're called to close the mobile gender gap because of our commitment to fairness and because of our commitment to progress…. Investing in women's progress is the most direct and effective way to invest in progress economically and socially globally.”
The State Department and USAID have already begun to integrate mobile initiatives into development assistance. A cell phone, observed the Secretary, is “not just a device, it is a door to greater education and information.” From programs that teach English and literacy via cell phones, to a mobile and financial inclusion conference in Kenya, to the early stages of establishing a mobile justice project in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a means to address the crisis of sexual violence against women in that country, innovation is the name of the game.
Joining the Secretary at the mWomen launch were former British First Lady Cherie Blair, Rob Conway, CEO of GSMA, and Reema Nanavaty and Kapilaben Vankar from the Self-Employed Women Association (SEWA) in India. Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, introduced Secretary Clinton and also moderated a panel of experts that included Mary McDowell, CEO of Nokia; Molly Melching, the Executive Director of Tostan in Senegal; Karim Khoja, CEO of the Afghan mobile operator Roshan, and Alec Ross, the Secretary's Senior Advisor for Innovation.
The one who stole the show, however, was Ms. Kapilaben Vankar, with her compelling personal story about the transformative impact of going mobile. A lily farmer from a village in Gujarat, Ms. Vankar said she had never even seen a cell phone until a few years ago. Once she was faced with the sole responsibility of supporting her family after the death of her husband, however, she took a chance on investing in a mobile phone and it transformed her life. Whereas she had previously operated in isolation and had to work ten times harder because of it -- picking the flowers, finding markets to sell them, getting prices, and taking orders -- once she had the mobile phone, she was connected with a network of new markets, contacts, and information. It enabled her to streamline her workload and it was the ticket to increasing her productivity and competitiveness. With a simple phone, she unleashed her entrepreneurial talents. Ms. Vankar used the time and income she saved to diversify and start a new business -- this time, using the mobile phone to source food grains from other small farmers and sell to her “sisters” in the village. She is emblematic of so many others who are seizing the opportunities opened by mobile technology.
Throughout the mWomen event, it became clear that ignoring the mobile gender gap represents a lost opportunity. The benefits of increasing women's access to mobile technology cut across all sectors, including health, education, entrepreneurship, and finance. Cherie Blair said her foundation was drawn to the effort to close the mobile technology gender gap though the “shared instinct that too many women were missing out on opportunities that mobile phones provided.” Through her foundation, she has committed to implementing a program for 100,000 women entrepreneurs over four years with integrated business development support, including access to mobile technology and value-added services to enhance women's micro and small businesses.
As GSMA CEO Rob Conway noted, mobile is “the great leveler of access and enabler of opportunities.” It can be a tool to support women's political activism and civic participation by enabling women to organize, build networks, and advocate for change. In addition to providing a platform for information to improve maternal and women's health, it is a source of security for women and can help stop or prevent violence. The technology is also empowering women in the areas of food security, climate change, and disaster response. It helps female farmers access “just-in-time information” to find out about shifts in crop and weather patterns caused by climate change and natural disaster. By offering more women the “freedom to connect” through mobile technology, the benefits and opportunities made possible through innovation will grow exponentially.