Using New Technology to Break Traditional Barriers for Women
The Promise of Mobile Telephony
Bill and Melinda Gates’ “big bet” on the potential for mobile technology to revolutionize the lives of the poor, especially women, emphasizes the promise of financial applications. In developing countries, the poor store value in unreliable assets, such as livestock, and save by hiding money around the house. They must borrow at usurious rates in hard times and are vulnerable to theft of cash that can wipe out years of savings. Being able to convert money to a digital form will bring stability and security that will improve their financial position significantly.
Women, especially, stand to gain from this technology, if barriers to access can be lifted. Financial services will be very important to them, but other possibilities that can come from mobile delivery could create windows for autonomy, safety, health, and connection that have never before been possible for females in remote communities.
Traditional practices around the world exert an astonishing level of control over poor women. Females are often forbidden to own assets, even bank accounts. Any cash they may earn is deemed to belong to husband or father. Saving is almost impossible, except in the form of livestock, and the only insurance against a rainy day may be a bracelet given to them on their wedding day. Carrying cash—even the proceeds from a microloan—makes them especially vulnerable to violence. Such women live under financial conditions that make them utterly dependent on the whims of others.
Mobile banking promises unprecedented autonomy by providing poor women the means to keep money, in secret if necessary, and to save, spend, or send it on their own. Because we know that women in such communities are far more likely to use any money they have for health and educational purposes, especially to benefit children, it is in everyone’s interest to make such services available to and affordable for them.
But there are other benefits to consider. Information about legal rights can be sent to women who are too far from the cities to know they have any. The ability to call or text for help when threatened with domestic violence can make the difference between life and death. New “text to treatment” programs are already making it possible for women to receive healthcare who otherwise would not be able to buy the bus ticket to go to the hospital. Software is being developed that can teach literacy and numeracy to females forced to leave school to marry early. Simply having the means to communicate with friends and family can break the loneliness that often results when girls are sent off to live with in-laws in a distant village.
Females in developing countries, especially in very poor regions, currently have much less access to communications technology than males have—and mobile is no exception. Though men and women alike often offer the excuse that mobile is “not necessary” or “too expensive” for women, the truth is that traditional prejudices and practices tend toward keeping women isolated by refusing them the means to be with or talk to others. Focused attempts will be required to get this technology into the hands of women and girls, but the benefits will repay such efforts many times over.