LIVE FROM GSMA MOBILE 360 AFRICA: If women are not deeply involved in technology there is a big risk that the inequalities of the outside world will be reflected in the digital one, warned Priya Jaisinghani, acting director of the Center for Global Solutions, US Global Development Lab, USAID, at the GSMA’s Connected Women event in Cape Town.

Jaisinghani (pictured) illustrated her point by noting that in the US there is an equal number of male and female internet users yet 85 per cent of Wikipedia articles are written by men. She believes that if the information and the structure online is created by someone who looks and thinks differently than women, there will always be a sense of exclusion, even inferiority.

To tackle this, women must be encouraged to study ICT and consider it as a career, and must be made aware of the benefits that technology, such as mobile phones, can bring.

She also believes operators must collectively invest in research on how to get more women to access mobile technology. However, the industry must not look at women’s access to mobile phones, and the number of women working in the industry, in isolation. The industry needs to think across the ecosystem and consider the issues holistically.

Anne Bouverot, Director General, GSMA, echoed this in her opening keynote when she said that increasing mobile phone take-up is not just about making phone calls but how it impacts all sectors. It enables and changes how we buy things as well as the delivery of education and health.

She highlighted what the GSMA’s Connected Women programme wants to achieve in the future, including improving access to mobile through working with operators, increasing awareness of careers in ICT for young girls and making women in mobile the norm rather than the exception.

Operator perspective
Sylvia Mulinge, GM, Enterprise Solutions at Safaricom, said that in emerging markets, cultural and religious barriers have contributed to 300 million fewer women having access to phones than men, which deprives them of the opportunity for social and financial independence.

Speaking from her own experience she said that being able to FaceTime with her children through her phone makes it easier for her to do her job.

Africa has more mobile phone connections than toilets, it was pointed out, and even more connections than electricity, clean water and bank accounts. This can be leveraged to improve people’s lives by creating services such as those introduced by Safaricom.These include helping women use mobile phones to access healthcare plans, store and manage funds as well as get micro credit for setting up their own small businesses.

Shedding some light on barriers to mobile phone use in her country, Dr Gupta from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India said the obstacles included men feeling threatened by female empowerment and women instinctively spending on their family rather than themselves, among many others.

However, the government is working hard to encourage mobile phone take up in rural areas and has set up solar charging facilities and repair centres. An SMS toolkit sends health related text messages to pregnant women and new mothers while an app lets them send distress signals if they are in trouble.

The government also provides women with information such as weather forecasts and vegetable prices in their local languages, while encouraging them to use mobile phones to tackle loneliness, something many of them are dealing with.

Panel discussion
In the panel discussion towards the end of the morning session, Chris Burns of USAID said the organisation realised if it wanted to impact not just hundreds but millions of people through mobile technology it needed to partner with private organisations as they have large footprints and marketing resources.

Carol Caruso of Accion said that, initially, handholding is required, especially if women lack the confidence to use mobile phones. That can involve the very basics, such as explaining what a SIM is.

Also, it is important to find women who believe in technology and train them to be leaders in their community so they can dispel fears or concerns.

According to Alison Gilwald of Research ICT Africa, the solution is not a simple one, such as putting a pink cover on a phone, but big, sustainable changes including market structure and regulatory systems.

The GSMA’s Connected Women programme is focused on creating awareness of the business case for greater involvement of women in the mobile industry as well as enabling women to reap the socio-economic benefits of access to mobile phones.