Foreign Policy Blogs

Call Me, Maybe

maasai woman with mobile, courtesy University of Denver/flickr (CC BY-NC-SA)

When asked what items they never leave the house without, many people (in the West at least) would likely answer, “my mobile (cell) phone.” It would be pretty difficult for people in the U.K., for example, to adjust to a world where their handset didn’t accompany them everywhere; where they were unable to receive SMSs from their family; where women found their husbands to be disapproving of them owning such a device. In developing regions across the world, this scenario is more fact than fiction.

Google’s annual I/O conference is taking place in San Francisco this week, and the keynote speech(es) yesterday highlighted the latest, shiniest offerings Google is releasing to the public. I didn’t sit and watch the whole thing (it was over three hours long!) but from the parts I did catch, mobile seemed to be an area of focus. “Newer – faster – more intuitive” was the take-away, with users expected to be using the Android OS, on a smartphone. And what about the millions and millions of people with more basic handsets? Not quite Google’s target market segment. I came across a great article on openDemocracy which examines African women’s digital agency, discovering in the process that — in an “oh…well yes, of course” moment — there is a pretty significant gender gap when it comes to owning and using mobile (cell) phones.

According to GSMA (and perhaps here it should be noted that this is a mobile industry body), while mobile phone use in “the developing world is exploding, women are being left behind.” Research from 2010 found that a gender gap of around 300 million women existed in low to middle income countries. In Africa, as Carolyn Humbaba writes,

“Due to financial constraints and limited economic power, most African women face the dilemma of choosing whether to spend their money on use of ICTs or to buy food for their families and meet other very basic needs of survival. The unequal power relations between men and women that contribute to differential access, participation and treatment of men and women in the Information Society is in most cases over looked in the various interventions that have been made over the years.”

A rather large part of the power inequality could be said to arise from the (lack of) education that girls and women receive in some regions of the world. While female enrollment in sub-Saharan Africa and South and East Asia has increased, a UNESCO report found this to be due to richer, urban girls participating. And, lest we forget, enrolment is not the same as actually completing school. Without proper schooling, girls and women are left illiterate — and within the context of telecommunications, this poses problems when dealing with text-based interfaces, not to mention English-language dominance when it comes to more sophisticated, internet-capable devices.

Women also face cultural and social barriers to mobile (cell) phone possession. Asiacell, an Iraqi mobile operator, built on research into why Iraqi women’s take-up rate of phones was so small compared to the market at large. In developing a product specifically designed for women, the company had to shift their usual strategy as barriers to entry included husbands’ concerns, male sales and customer service agents, and the possibility of damaging one’s reputation through receiving unwanted calls.

Their service, called “Alma,” includes the “bye bye” feature which can block any number (calling and sending SMS), so aiming to limit harrassment, and a dedicated female-staffed call center. It also, unsurprisingly, has an “exclusive menu” for women which rather predictably focuses on family health, beauty and recipes. This feeds into what GSMA have written in their marketing guide for mobile network operators, namely, suggesting it might be highly profitable to make your product gender-specific instead of gender neutral. As the Western world slowly starts to shift children’s toys toward being promoted in a more gender neutral way (if only slightly), it seems “grown up” toys are heading in the opposite direction. In this case, I say let’s even up the balance first, then worry about what it is the scales are holding. Talking of making products highly gender-specific, Oxfam decided to do just that when distributing phones to a project in Cambodia: They made them pink. But maybe not for the reason you would expect.

Is women owning mobile (cell) phones likely to overthrow patriarchy and eliminate gender discrimination? Not in my life time, I would wager. Fatimah Kelleher, in her openDemocracy article mentioned above, noted, “Digital advancements within the continent [of Africa] can play a major role, but alone they will not empower women.” Education, good healthcare and economic opportunity can. But mobile phones shouldn’t be overlooked as a powerful tool for increasing awareness, providing financial access through mobile finance to markets and banking, and helping people stay connected to one another. So call me, maybe?



Cate Mackenzie

Cate works as an editor in Zürich, Switzerland. She holds an MA in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich, and a BA (Hons) in International Studies with Political Science from the University of Birmingham (UK).

She has previously lived and worked in Fiji and the US.