I was an early beneficiary of the way in which new technology can transform a woman’s life. In the 1980s, when my older children were still toddlers, it was the arrival of the personal computer that allowed me to combine child-rearing with continuing my career as a barrister, largely from home. Computer literacy was rare at that time in the legal profession, so I was something of a pioneer.
Today, in an age defined by technology, those cut off from the information revolution are at a huge disadvantage. So it is worrying, as recent research from the GSMA and my own foundation has confirmed, that women in particular are missing out on this revolution in many parts of the developing world. Women are 23 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone than men in Africa, 24 percent less likely in the Middle East, and 37 percent less likely in South Asia.
One student from Afghanistan told me that without a mobile phone to allow her family to keep in contact at all times, they would simply have refused to allow her to leave their community and go to university.
Women in those countries have testified that there are wide-ranging benefits that simply owning a mobile phone brings to their lives. In parts of the world where there are few if any landlines (indeed, the emerging, almost universal nature of mobile coverage means these networks will never be built), nine out of 10 women said a mobile phone made them feel safer, and almost as many said it made them feel more independent. But, importantly, 41 percent say it has increased their income.
In the long run, it is mobile phones’ power to expand women’s economic opportunities that is potentially the most transformative. Women in Asia, Africa and the Middle East have impressed on me how having their own income gives them more confidence and status within the family, which leads to their having an input into key decisions.
They are, for example, much more likely to be able to insist that their daughters receive an education, something very important to many mothers. Greater financial independence gives women more control over their own bodies—the power to insist on safe sex, for example. And because women spend 90 percent of their income on their families—a far higher proportion than men, who, studies show, spend more on themselves—women’s personal economic success can boost the income of the whole family and is key to combating poverty and ill-health. Outside the family, too, financial independence gives women a much more powerful voice in their community.
But how can merely having access to a mobile phone improve a woman’s business prospects? Women farmers—and they are mainly women—use text messaging to check on prices for crops so they get the best deals at markets. A case study from India featured the mobile phone being used to place direct orders with wholesalers, thus “cutting out the middleman.”
In areas where transport links are poor and banks few and far between, texts are used to operate bank accounts and send payments to suppliers. One small businesswoman in Tanzania recently told me how her phone helped her avoid a two-hour bus journey each way.
Mobile phones are also being used innovatively to offer wider social benefits. Texts pass on important health messages and even facilitate schemes to improve the literacy of girls and women. In Senegal, a UNICEF education program reinforces women’s literacy skills through the use of mobiles. Teachers send text messages to their students on a wide range of subjects, engaging them on different levels. Financial literacy, too, can be improved through mobile technology in the same way.
Even for those women who have already overcome many barriers in their lives, mobile phones are seen as essential. I have just returned from a visit to the Asian University for Women, an extraordinary initiative based in Bangladesh that aims to provide higher education to those drawn from traditional backgrounds across the region.
One student from Afghanistan told me that without a mobile phone to allow her family to keep in contact at all times, they would simply have refused to allow her to leave their community and go to university—no matter how marvelous the opportunity she was offered.
There is mounting evidence that women are likely to be the main drivers of economic growth in the coming decades. Those societies that fail to make the most of half their population will be left badly behind. Our hopes of spreading prosperity and opportunity will also be dashed.
That’s why it’s important that more effort is made to address the gender gap in technology. If it were closed, there would be some 300 million more women in the developing world with access to mobile phones and the benefits this brings to them, their families, communities, and economies.
Closing this gap would bring a $13 billion boost to the mobile-phone industry too, so they have a huge incentive to do more to help women. This includes not only imaginative financing schemes. The industry also needs, as some companies have already understood, better targeted and more sensitive marketing.
Helping women to talk more may seem like the start of an old Music Hall joke, but the personal, economic, and development impact of closing the technology gap is no laughing matter.
Cherie Blair is the founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, which helps women achieve financial independence in countries where they have few advantages. For more information, visit www.cherieblairfoundation.org