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Women and call against ICT gender divide, the Mobile World reflections

By John Awe
In 2001 in South Africa, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) rallied the world to tackle the embarrassing imbalance in telecommunications development between Africa and the rest of the world.

A recent ICT conference: many men few women!

The battle cry from the ITU was ‘bridge the digital divide’. In less than a decade since then, much progress has been recorded in this direction, with many African countries, including the continent’s most populous country, Nigeria, dramatically improving their ICT profiles.

Somehow, the matter raised heads again in Barcelona Spain, during the Mobile World Congress. This time around, it was how to ‘bridge the gender divide’, showing the clear imbalance in the gender distribution of mobile phones, telecom operators, under the umbrella of the Global System for Mobile communications Association (GSMA), are rallying behind the cause of empowering women worldwide to have equal access to the benefits of ICT.

In one of the high points of the annual premier mobile communications exhibition and summit in Spain, the GSMA, which represents the interests of the worldwide mobile communications industry, and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, a charity that supports women entrepreneurs, published a report ‘Women and Mobile: A Global Opportunity’.  This is believed to be one of the most significant collective efforts in the communications industry aimed at closing the gender divide especially in the developing countries.

Before now, on a strictly individual basis, some of the telecommunications operators  with strong social investment dispositions, like Nigeria’s MTN, have implemented a series of social investment projects specifically aimed at socially and economically empowering women as a viable means of impacting more profoundly, the family units.

MTN Nigeria’s social corporate investment implementing vehicle, MTN Foundation has for a number of years now implemented the very model that GSMA has adopted, vis-à-vis, partnering with credible non governmental organisations, to advance the cause of women, improving their access to quality health, education and economic independence.

Through one of such alliances, many otherwise less privileged women were taught how to earn honest living operating mobile phone services. The women, called Phone Ladies, were provided with tools and funds to start off. Today, many of these women have extended telecommunications services to thousands of other women too poor to own phones of their own. In the process, they are fending for themselves and their families, while many have also become employers of labour.

The report jointly unveiled in Spain by GSMA and the Cherie Blair Foundation, harps on this deliberate efforts aimed at improving the society, through the womenfolk. More importantly, it brings global focus on the plight of women in the developing world and highlights the barriers facing women’s adoption of mobile technologies. It also shows that, by extending the benefits of mobile phone ownership to more women, a host of social and economic goals can be achieved.

Although it had always been known that a chasm exists between the menfolk and womenfolk in terms of ICT empowerment, the GSMA/Blair Foundation report reveals for the first time the extent of the gender gap in mobile usage in many low and middle-income countries.

Some interesting statistics unearthed by the reports reveal that a woman in Africa is 23 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than a man; that there are 300 million fewer female subscribers than male subscribers worldwide; that women in rural areas and lower income brackets stand to benefit the most from closing the gender gap; and that 41percent of women report having increased income and professional opportunities once they own a phone.

The reports submits that closing the gender gap would bring the benefits of mobile phones to an additional 300 million women, empowering and enabling them to stay better connected with family and friends, improving their safety, and helping them obtain paid work, in line with the third UN Millennium Development Goal on gender equality.  The mobile phone as documented in the report is an effective productivity and development tool which creates education, health, employment, banking and business opportunities.

The research calls for the mobile industry, development community and policy makers to undertake a number of steps together, including specifically addressing women in segmentation strategies and marketing tactics; creating innovative programmes to increase the uptake of mobile phones amongst women; promoting the mobile phone as a life enhancing, effective development tool which creates education, health, employment, banking and business opportunities; and designating high-profile champions of mobile phones for women.

The report recommends partnerships among stakeholders from the private, non-profit and public sectors. “Each stakeholder will need to take steps on their own, but also work together for maximum impact and to close this gap”, the report recommends.
Perhaps, the most outstanding part of this report is that it does not stop at telling operators to do this good deed of empowering women, it goes ahead to show a link between doing this and improving their bottom line. In other words, the report is telling the operators to do good, and is showing them the money.

According to the report, women account for 750 million of the 1.25 billion adults in low and middle income countries who have mobile phone coverage, but don’t have handsets. If operators bring mobile phone penetration among women on a par with penetration among men, this report shows they would collectively earn US$13 billion in additional revenues each year.

Interestingly, the principle espoused by this report underpins the business strategies of some of the world’s most successful brands: do good, help society, help yourself. Again, one is forced to make reference to MTN Nigeria here as a company in our immediate environment which has wired the concept of doing good into its very business strategy.

In Nigeria’s communications sector, MTN has set up a body exclusively devoted to executing its social projects and annually devotes up to 1 percent of its profit after tax to implementing wide impact corporate social investment initiatives in the critical areas of education, health and economic empowerment.

Last year, in addition to a broad range of other social projects, including a comprehensive strategy against HIV/AIDS, 60 percent of whose victims are women, the company began the process of establishing six mammography centres across Nigeria to help check mortality among the womenfolk as a result of breast cancer. The hospitals to benefit from this initiative were named last year.

In essence, the battle to raise the profile of women socially and economically and boost their life expectancy through access to quality health care began in Nigeria long before the launch of GSMA/Blair Foundation report.

However, this is not to say that the battle cry from this important communications event is coming too late. If anything, it would provide impetus for companies like MTN that are already contributing their quotas to the laudable cause, and will help to ginger others in the telecoms sector to jump on the train for the ultimate benefit of the society.
John Awe, a Lagos based ICT analyst, works for XLR8


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