Women all over the world face particular challenges due to societal gender norms. Access to technology is one of many areas where women in developing countries are left behind or are not advancing as fast as their male counterparts.
A recent article in the Guardian highlighted that teenage girls in poor countries such as Nigeria, Tanzania, Malawi, Rwanda, India and Bangladesh are less likely to own mobile phones than boys. Among the teenagers in these countries that were interviewed by Girl Effect, more than half of the girls answered that they have to borrow a phone to access mobile services, while the same for the boys was about 28 percent.
This picture is confirmed by The Mobile Gender gap report 2018 by GSMA which states that women in in low and middle-income countries are about 10% less likely to own a mobile phone than men. Counted in number of users this translates to 184 million fewer women owning mobile phones.
While scholars like Heeks point out that subscription figures may overestimate mobile phone penetration, having access to a mobile phone and being familiar with technology certainly have positive impacts and provide advantages to the boys.
ICT 4 Women’s health
Though women in general seem to have less access to technology, this does not necessarily mean that ICT in development is not used to the advantage of women. In fact, many development projects focus on women dominated issues such as health care improvement.
In Kenya, the British Aid funded MANI project is trying to get more women in Bungoma county (which had one of the lowest hospital birth rate in the country) to visit health facilities though a number of interventions. One of the obstacles they identified was the financial and logistic problem for the poorest women to get to hospital. The project successfully tested an innovative approach to this; health centres would issue transport vouchers to women in need at their antenatal checkups which could later be used for going to the delivery ward with motorbike taxis ordered through a special mobile application.
Another Kenyan example of an ICT4Development project that is geared towards women is the M-Afya project. The project, which is funded by the County Innovation Challenge Fund, provides funding for testing of untried solutions on improving maternal and newborn care, and aims to get more women in Nairobi to use maternal and newborn health services. Through a pre-payment or saving scheme which utilises the widely used MPESA mobile money transfer platform, the project helps women to break down the cost of delivery to more manageable weekly payments. The women using the service would also receive text messages with health information.
Accessing the public sphere
ICT for development is however not just the use of ICT in development, but also a wider concept of ICT impact on development. In terms on gender and women in particular, there is a notion that ICT can increase women’s participation in the public sphere. When it comes to the women surveyed by the GSMA though, it seemed that even when women own a phone, they do not always use the same services as men. In India, for example, men are more than twice as likely to browse the web in comparison to women. Some of the girls interview by the Girl Effect in India reported that there was a big stigma surrounding their use of mobile phones. One of them was quoted saying “If parents give their son a mobile phone, the community doesn’t say anything, but when parents give a girl a phone, the community asks questions”.
In a brief on Gender and ICT by the Swedish government development agency SIDA it is stated that “ICT has the potential to alleviate some of the barriers faced by women”. Although the brief exudes a hope of ICT as a catalyst for change for women it also clearly states that “existing power relations in society determine who benefits from and shapes the content, development and use of ICT”. So while ICT4Development may play its role in improving gender and human right issues it is not a stand-alone quick fix to gender-inequality.