A Matter of Life & Death: Access to a Cell Phone Puts Women in Rural Areas in Touch With Lifesaving Prenatal Care, Amongst Many Other Kinds of Services. Image Credit: Flickr

People are always shocked to learn how widespread and easily available mobile technology is in “developing nations” like Bangladesh, Kenya, and Afghanistan. When my husband visited my city of birth, Dhaka, last year he could not believe how many people had cell phones in a country where more than half of the population cannot access clean drinking water.

 

Non-profit organizations are using mobile technology to spread development, allowing rural populations more access to their programs and basic health services. The advantages of having a mobile phone are endless, but how easily are these advantages available to women?

Not without serious difficulties, as a news story by Bloomberg News reports. The title of the story, “Afghan Women Tolerate Beating for Wireless Phones in a $4 Billion New Market,” pretty much says it all, reflecting the barriers women in some countries in South & Central Asia and Africa have in accessing technology that can increase their mobility and give them an income.

“My husband’s family is very traditional,” Maryam, a 24-year-old Afghan woman told Bloomberg News. “They are very much against mobile phones and freedom for women.” So much so that when Maryam’s husband discovered her cell phone, he beat her with a whip.

Men like Maryam’s husband’s should be worried. Information is power. Cell phones can be life changing for women in emerging markets because it allows them access to banking services, to text messages alerting them when the communal water tap is working, and even to instructions on prenatal care. That’s a lot of women’s empowerment – and some men would prefer control stays, well, in their control.

But the world’s biggest telecommunications companies have noticed this huge untapped new market, and have begun to target female customers in the developing world.

Bloomberg states that American and Australian agencies for international development are backing the effort by phone companies such as Vodafone Group Plc (VOD), France Telecom SA (FTE) “with $1 million to fund research into how to find and keep women like Maryam, and to persuade men that handsets aren’t a threat.”

The GSMA’s MWomen program estimates that approximately 38 percent of women have cell phones in their 149 target countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.  MWomen has found that women in these countries are 21 percent less likely than their male counterparts to have a handset.

The gap is even larger in South & Central Asian countries such as Afghanistan, India and Nepal, where a woman is 37 percent less likely to be a wireless customer, as Aleeda Fazal, a mobile money specialist, describes:

In the Afghan woman’s mind, mobile phone technology helps her to keep in touch with friends and can help her be entrepreneurial. In the Afghan man’s mind, the technology means he loses control of the woman.

Fazal states that in front of Afghan men, Afghan women would say they weren’t interested in accessing mobile technology. But in their absence they would plead to her, “Please, find a way to help us be a part of this.”

If the world’s largest cell phone companies have their way, soon women all over the world will have access to mobile technology.

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