Technologies That Empower Women

Cherie Blair and MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski tackle how technology can change women’s lives at Women in The World on Saturday. Read about how innovations like text messaging, mobile video, and birthing kits are part of the solution.

Cherie Blair, MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, and Ann Livermore, the executive vice president of HP Enterprise Business, tackle how technology can change women’s lives at Women in The World on Saturday. Read about how innovations like text messaging, mobile video, and birthing kits are part of the solution.

Poverty and disease, inequality and violence—there's no app for that. The systemic challenges facing billions of women in the developing world defy easy, clickable solutions. Yet from linking remote villages via increasingly ubiquitous mobile-phone messaging to improved water safety and cooking tools, technological innovations are changing the lives of women and their families for the better, around the world.

In most cases, it's not cool social-media widgets or super-wired gadgets that are making a difference. Much of the social change being driven by technology involves local innovation, local investment, and local custom. Technology that can be sustained at the country or regional level and through public-private partnerships—without massive international aid—is the kind that often brings the most lasting change. Often, this kind of transformation entails looking past the established solutions of the developed world and adopting canny new technological shortcuts. Examples include bypassing the expensive prospect of installing large-scale water-filtration and distribution systems in favor of inexpensive and easy-to-distribute kits that allow women to filter and desalinate local water at home—or using e-learning systems to train rural nurses in the field, rather than requiring them to physically attend classes in cities.

The 10 technologies we're highlighting are emblematic of the reach of technology into the lives of women in the developing world. Yet none is a panacea; in many cases, political change lags. Poverty is a massive problem with both global and regional causes. Yet the more new technology puts the tools of change into local hands, the more able we are to move from a model of unsustainable basic humanitarian aid to more sustainable markets and networked communities. This isn't about a sudden flash of modernization or getting remote villages to tweet when they don’t even have enough to eat—it's about advances that improve the daily lives of women on every continent, bit by bit.

1. Video Everywhere

Ubiquitous and inexpensive videocameras, via cellphones or lightweight portable units like the Flip, are powering social movements and political change. From the horrific images of systematic rape in Guinea last fall to the death of female protesters during the political upheaval in Iran this year, cheap and easily shareable video is changing the way we perceive conflict and human rights around the world. When every activist is also a video journalist connected to a worldwide network, the power equation changes—and we see that women are truly on the frontlines.

2. Clean Cooking

Better cooking technology promises cleaner air, a drop in smoke-related disease rates and, finally, more time for women to build independent lives. In essence, changing the way women in the developing world prepare meals could usher in the same kind of modernization that (gradually) empowered women in the industrial world a century ago.

A low-tech solution with huge potential impact is the distribution of compact, well-designed cooking devices—stoves—to women in the developing world who traditionally cook over smoky, choking open fires. The Rocket Stove is a design developed by the Aprovecho Research Center, an Oregon-based nonprofit working on heating and cooking solutions for the developing world. Aprovecho has provided stoves in Mexico, Central America, South America, Africa, India, and the Philippines with the overall goal of improving the health of the estimated 2 to 3 billion people who cook their food over open biomass fires. An added bonus: a big decline in greenhouse gasses.

3. Birthing Kits

Soap. A plastic sheet. A new razor blade. Some string. As low-tech as you can get, but each of the many thousands of 25-cent birthing kits distributed through health and relief organizations can save a life, according to research supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. According to PATH, an international nonprofit that has distributed these simple kits in countries including Bangladesh, Egypt, and Nepal, infection is a leading cause of death for some 1,600 women each day from complications associated with childbirth. Nearly 1 million newborns die each year of infection. With 57 million women giving birth each year without trained health-care assistance, birthing kits pack a huge potential impact.

4. Electronic Election Monitoring

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In countries like Lebanon, where women led the original outcry against landmines and human-rights violations, volunteers are using new digital technologies to monitor elections and open up the political process. During last year's elections, a group of volunteers launched the Sharek961 project, using technologies like Ushahidi, an open-source project based in Africa (it means "testimony" in Swahili) that allows users to crowd-source crisis information via mobile phones. They also relied on the nonprofit Frontline SMS text-message application to report abuse and irregularities in campaigning and at the polls.

5. E-Learning

A public-private partnership between the Nursing Council of Kenya, consulting firm Accenture, the Kenya Medical Training Colleges, and the African Medical and Research Foundation is emblematic of how online teaching is changing women's lives. The goal: certifying nearly 20,000 registered nurses by 2011 to respond to a massive need for health-care workers to deal with the challenges of HIV/AIDS and malaria, administer vaccinations, and provide pre- and post-natal care, all in Kenya's most remote and impoverished regions.

6. Clean Water Nanotech

“Any technology that gets clean water for drinking and cooking closer to the consumer more cheaply is a huge benefit to women in the developing world," says Mari Kuraishi, co-founder of GlobalGiving, an online giving marketplace that funds grassroots projects in many countries.

Where the construction of large-scale clean-water systems isn't feasible, the growth of nanotechnology solutions is helping women by providing clean water for families close to their homes. Small-scale purification systems can serve a single village that used to be dependent on dirty, stagnant water. Ultrafiltration membranes remove more than 99 percent of bacteria, molds, and spores from drinking water, and can be used at home.

7. Mobile Digital Banking

Is poverty permanent? Without local systems that encourage investment and commerce, it could be. That's why mobile digital banking using inexpensive handheld phones as bank centers is such an encouraging development for the women who manage households—and, often, small businesses—in the developing world. In rural Mongolia, the World Bank's Consultative Group to Assist the Poor worked with Xacbank, Mongolia's largest microfinance institution, to launch a program last year linking 300,000 rural Mongolians with mobile banking services.

8. Peer-to-Peer Funding Networks

No longer are women in the developing world merely photographs on the mailers of big international aid organizations. Thanks to Web sites like Kiva and Epic Change, they're now businesswomen, mothers, and daughters, with life stories that are real and immediate. Since its 2005 launch, the microfinance database Kiva has linked an enthusiastic army of more than 600,000 online lenders with small business owners in 52 countries, to the tune of more than $150 million. Epic Change is a smaller, nonprofit startup that is building school facilities in Tanzania and linking Twitter-based donors to projects via Flickr photos and YouTube videos. Thanks to these efforts, the gap between "developed" and "developing" is closing. Stunningly, more than 83 percent of Kiva entrepreneurs are women, reflecting what aid groups have observed for decades: that women are often far more proactive than men in raising their families and communities out of poverty.

9. Agricultural Technology

Increasing the yield from seeds, water, and soil has allowed for a massive increase in food production in the developed world over the last half-century. But technology has often ignored farmers in the developing world. As Bill Gates noted in his annual foundation letter last year, "new seeds and other inputs like fertilizer allow a farmer to increase her farm’s output significantly, instead of just growing enough food to subsist." Innovations such as micro-irrigation, treadle pumps, water bags, and drip-irrigation hoses can allow the small farmer not just to feed her family—but to sell a small surplus. With the extra money, aid groups are encouraging families to keep their teenage daughters in school, instead of forcing them into arranged marriages that help parents offload the costs of housing and feeding their daughters.

10. Connected Communities

When remote villages are interconnected, cultural biases against women can change rapidly. Take the Jokko Initiative in Senegal, named for the word that means "communication" in Wolof, Senegal’s national language. Jokko is a joint project of UNICEF and Tostan, an NGO that has led the movement to abandon female genital-cutting and forced child marriage. The program uses a text message-based social-networking platform to more rapidly "train the trainers," local volunteers who go village to village talking to their peers about “democracy, human rights, problem-solving, hygiene and health, literacy, math, and management," according to Tostan. The result? Less female genital-cutting and child marriage.

Elsewhere, network connections can shift power. The Fundación Proyecto de Vida—"Foundation Life Project"—is a Guatemalan citizen movement that encourages "bottom-up" empowerment to improve what has traditionally been a closed and sometimes violent society. The effort teaches young women to use mobile technology to uncover and report corruption. In Egypt, young citizen journalists like 25-year-old Noha Atef are telling the story of human-rights abuses via blogs like Torture in Egypt. And on the African island of Madagasgar, the citizen-journalism organization Foko Madagasgar is using a range of online social media to tell the story of the Malagasy people, who struggle with issues like deforestation, poverty, and political violence.

Plus: Check out more from Giving Beast, featuring news, video, and amazing photographs of people, places, and issues that need our support.

Tom Watson is the author of CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World (Wiley, 2008) and managing partner of CauseWired Communications LLC, a consulting firm that works with nonprofits and causes.