Can Mobile Phones Empower Women?
The mWomen initiative, launched by Hillary Clinton, aims to provide 150 million women around the world with mobile phone technology.
Across all countries a woman is 21 percent less likely to own a phone than a man. Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South Asia experience above average rates, with the latter at 37 percent. The mWomen initiative looks to reduce the gender gap by 50 percent in the next three years.
Supporter of the initiative Cherie Blair, wife of Tony Blair, explains the need for a phone. “It can help with literacy. It can help with health programs and projects and it’s a way of helping women develop small businesses and get financial independence.”
“With a mobile phone, expectant mothers who live nowhere near a clinic can get health advice,” Clinton said at a press conference. Another example is that victims of sexual violence in DR Congo who live in rural areas with no court system can send messages to towns where there is a judiciary as well as take photos and sound recordings for evidence.
According to one survey by the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA), 41 percent of all female business owners in developing countries had higher earnings because of their phone. Samanthi from Sri Lanka who sells charcoal stoves reports, “It’s really difficult to do business without a mobile phone…My customers can contact me anytime, from any place.” In addition, 93 percent reported feeling safer with a phone, and 85 percent reported feeling more independent.
However some women in Egypt have voiced reservations about the program. Sahar al Mougy, prominent feminist and professor at Cairo University calls the program “terribly simplistic and commercial,” contending, “The huge discrepancy that exists between men and women can’t be solved by the ownership of a mobile…It’s all good for the mobile companies that more women will possess more mobiles, it means more customers”
Additionally, Al Mougy disagrees with the idea that a mobile phone brings safety. “If a husband beats his wife she is not going to call for help because she has been brought up to think that he has the right to do so.”
Nihad Abul Koumsan, head of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, explains, “Owning a telephone is positive because it gives women a space to communicate with the outside world and greater access to education…But for women in Egypt, a mobile can be compared to a dog leash: her family constantly calls her to know where she is…And if she is unable to answer or in an area with no network, she could find herself in a very unpleasant situation once back home.”
Instead, what is needed is more schools and training programs as well as a “cultural rennaisance” to change the expectations and norms that disenfranchise women.
Claire Cranton of GSMA acknowledges that “A mobile phone is not a silver bullet that will cure all the problems surrounding gender inequity; however it is a tool that has the potential to make life changing information and services available to the whole world.”