Access is empowering

BusinessWeek tells us that the GSM Association has finally released a report with data to support what we’ve been saying for quite some time now, the mobile phone has an undeniable positive influence on the social and economic development at the bottom of the pyramid in developing nations facing infrastructural challenges.

While I’d love to spend a moment musing on the need for data to finally give validity to something seen with our own eyes, what struck me forcibly was the dearth of emphasis on the role the mobile was playing in creating a positive influence for change in the status, standing and role of those who are often the most disempowered in these nations, women.

Thinking that there has to be more than simply the obligatory mention of the now oft referenced Grameen Village Phone thingie in Bangladesh, Dave and I went googling to see if we could uncover other signals of the kinds of changes that the mobile was influencing in women’s lives. Examples that didn’t perhaps rely on a large scale top down organizational program. Here’s an intriguing story covered in Rebecca Wanjiku’s blog,

At the tiny Gaithuri river, Mama Wambui stands. She is down in her arrowroot farm but has to answer a call from another woman across the ridge. She is 34 and a mother of six. Am sure you know at what age she started giving birth and her challenges in the village, so i will not dwell on that. One thing is that Mama Wambui did not go beyond class five, she dropped out and was married off, after all, she was an asset.

However, Mama Wambui has found herself a new territory, where she teaches other women how to operate their mobile phones. Checking credit and loading credit, Mama Wambui helps them all. She is a hero in Giathi village.

At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, but important nonetheless in the overall context of the secondary role and standing that women must deal with daily across Africa, the Middle East and Asia is this snippet from an interview with a young Zambian lady doing her PhD in Gender and Information Communication Technologies at Coventry University. Kutoma Wakumuna makes some insightful points on the subject matter of mobile phones and women,

[…] outlines the main challenges African women could face in using mobile phones.

“The main difficulties are expense for both the physical handset and also the expense in airtime. But some of the burdens of expense could be done away with when women use phones in a communal form where a community can purchase one mobile phone and contribute towards its maintenance. During my fieldwork, I discovered that women were actually willing to contribute towards such a venture. When I came across this I also realised that in a sense, women were willing to pay for a service that they understood had potential to help them and was relevant to their way of life.”

Why does she think that an ICT like a mobile phone may not be used to its full potential?

“There are various ways a mobile phone can be used in underserved and poor areas of African countries. In the long term, a mobile phone can also be used for internet purposes in these areas, for information searching and sharing as is often the case with the internet. What I have found is that it is mainly used only for communication purposes, especially between families and friends in such areas. Of course this is not a bad thing, especially as families, be they extended or nuclear for African women are of utmost importance. I feel a mobile phone can also be used for a variety of other services and aspects, but perhaps because there is lack of awareness of other ways of using the mobile phone, it might not be used as creatively as it ought to be.

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