By Anne Morris
Today, more than 3 billion people in low- and middle-income countries do not own mobile phones, and 1.7 billion of them are estimated to be women, according to the GSMA's 2015 report on Connected Women. Women on average are 14 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone than men, which translates into 200 million fewer women than men owning mobile phones, the GSMA added.
However, the overall figure also masks greater inequalities at regional and country level. For example, the gender gap for Sub-Saharan Africa is 13 per cent, but the GSMA report found there was a 45 per cent gender gap in mobile phone ownership in Niger and a 33 per cent gender gap in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
In some markets, the problem could be even greater still, but data is not as easily obtainable. In Ghana, for example, "the gender gap is huge but there is no data to support this…that is one of the difficulties we have," said Daniel Kwaku Ganyoame, the director for a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Ghana called Africa ICT Right.
The benefits to getting these women connected are huge. For example, the GSMA claims that ensuring women in low- and middle-income countries own and use mobile phones on a par with men could unlock an estimated $170 billion (€149.4 billion) market opportunity for the mobile industry in the next five years.
What's more, mobile phones and access to mobile services and content provide significant social and economic benefits for the women themselves, as well as their families and local communities.
"Gender equality is important for us because we believe it is important for women themselves," said Anne Maclaren, a member of the group Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) team at Orange. "We know that giving them a mobile will make their lives easier on a day-to-day basis."
No 'silver bullet' to closing the gender gap
Despite these benefits--and despite the growth in mobile phone ownership globally over the last five years--women in many regions are still being left behind. This is due to a variety of reasons ranging from affordability through to cultural barriers, and indicates that much more needs to be done.
"The gender gap won't close on its own," said Claire Sibthorpe, director of the GSMA Connected Women programme. "But there is no one silver bullet," she warned, noting that service innovation is required to tackle the different hurdles in different markets.
There is already evidence that services specifically designed for women can help, whether by accident or design.
In Kenya, for example, the success of mobile money thanks to services such as Safaricom's M-Pesa has indirectly helped to reduce the gender gap in this market "by offering a relevant product that overcame barriers to mobile ownership for women," said the GSMA report.
Yet the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), housed at the World Bank, still finds that despite the "tremendous opportunity" of mobile money services to drive financial inclusion, "in many markets access and usage of digital financial services among women lag quite a bit compared to men," said Wameek Noor, financial sector analyst at CGAP.
Wammek Noor, financial sector analyst at CGAP
CGAP found that the reasons for this are varied. They range from the simple fact that fewer women have phones than men through to cultural reasons, such as sensitivity around sharing phone numbers with other men, who may use the numbers to call them inappropriately or harass them. CGAP now works with mobile companies with the ultimate goal of driving access and usage of financial services globally, Wameek said.
In Iraq, mobile operator Asiacell, which is majority owned by Qatar Telecom, also found that a barrier to entry for women was the number of harassment calls they received. The company therefore introduced a call-blocking service and doubled the number of women in its subscriber base. In Cambodia, meanwhile, there was a huge problem with men taking phones provided to women under a mobile technology project launched by Oxfam partner Women for Prosperity. The solution was to make the phones bright pink.
What it means to empower women
In Ghana, Africa ICT Right has launched a programme called Girls in Tech (GTech) to inspire and motivate girls to take up careers in ICT. Ganyoame said the NGO is also now trying to get mobile phones to more women in rural communities to help with pregnancies and reduce the number of fatalities during pregnancy and childbirth in the country. The NGO hopes to secure help from local operators such as Vodafone Ghana and MTN, and already works with Google on the GTech programme.
"It's very context-specific," said the GSMA's Sibthorpe, noting that it is important to understand the reasons why women do not buy or use mobile phones before trying to address the problem.
Like the GSMA, Mark West, an associate project officer at UNESCO Paris, also highlights the importance of addressing mobile phone usage and not just access to phones. For example, there have been instances when women are given mobile phones but not allowed any credit, meaning that they can be contacted but are unable to make use of the services themselves.
"That is disempowering," said West. "We need to be careful about what it means if someone has access."
As well as designing services that are relevant and affordable, UNESCO, Africa ICT Right and companies such as Orange and Ericsson place a strong focus on education and improvements in literacy among women to ensure they have the skills to benefit from the advantages that access to mobile services and content can bring. These advantages include being connected to critical services and remote learning by text, as well as the opportunity for women to create their own businesses and become ICT specialists themselves.
UNESCO, for example, runs a mobile learning programme that looks directly at how mobile technology--whether in the form of basic handsets or the newest tablet computer--can help "nudge the world toward greater gender equity," both in education and beyond it. Specifically, UNESCO is exploring how gender sensitive content and training, literacy support, and skills development can advance the education of women and girls.
In Myanmar, for example, UNESCO is working with state-owned operator MPT as well as Ericsson. The Swedish vendor in turn has launched the Connect to Learn programme to address some of the challenges relating to access to and quality of secondary education in developing markets, particularly for girls and young women.
The objective of Connect to Learn is to provide scholarships and bring ICT to schools in remote, resource-poor, parts of the world over mobile broadband. To date the initiative has been launched in 21 countries, with Myanmar the largest project to date.
Ericsson's Connect to Learn programme seeks to improve girls' secondary education over mobile broadband.
Elaine Weidman-Grunewald, VP of sustainability and corporate responsibility at Ericsson, said the programme was launched because it was apparent that a lot of young women were not going into secondary education, especially in Asia and Africa.
People in secondary education tend to be aged anywhere from 15-24 years old, which is "the age when youth are getting involved in technology," said Weidman-Grunewald. "So there is a good correlation between education and technology."
Weidman-Grunewald said Ericsson works with operators in all markets and noted they are generally very interested in the programme as they often are not in a position to invest in such initiatives themselves.
"They like that this is…thought through," said Weidman-Grunewald. "We provide the programme and the partners, and we ask operators to deal with the subscriptions. We have a solution."
The role of operators
Operators with a larger global footprint also engage in their own efforts to connect more women in low- and middle-income markets, and are driven by both economic and social imperatives.
Anne Maclaren, Orange CSR group member
Orange, for example, has so far held specific dialogues on the theme of women and ICT in Niger and Senegal and plans to engage with more of its affiliates in Africa and the Middle East.
According to Orange's Maclaren, the dialogues held with women, local authorities and NGOs helped them to understand women's needs and then identify priorities and propose solutions. In some cases, the agreed action plans involve services that already exist, such as Orange Money, but focuses on designing them for women.
"We will see which Orange companies want to have this approach in Africa and the Middle East," said Maclaren, noting that all of the company's affiliates in the region were due to take part in an event on June 8. "We know there is the market potential," she added.
While much work still needs to be done, many involved in closing the gender gap said there are manifold social and economic benefits to doing so. Indeed in today's world, "not having a mobile phone is like not having an identity," said UNESCO's West. "In some markets it's not yet customary to use a mobile phone…we seek to normalise use for women and girls."