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Addressing the Gender Gap in Mobile Phones

By Mark Trainer
Staff Writer

Washington — The potential of mobile phones to improve conditions for the world’s poor is among the most transformative developments of the past decade. But a gender gap leaves approximately 300 million women unable to connect to mobile networks.

On October 7, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced the mWomen initiative, which takes as its goal cutting the number of women without mobile access in half. ( http://www.america.gov/st/develop-english/2010/October/20101007165558eiznekcam0.9942743.html ) On October 20, the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, Melanne Verveer, participated in a webcast to discuss the initiative and underscore the progress for women that eliminating this gap would represent.

“The best, most effective development investments that can be made are made in order to lift up the lives of women,” Verveer said, because they have a multiplier effect on women’s families and on their communities.

She offered the example of Kapilaben Vankar, who spoke October 7 with Clinton. Her income comes from growing lilies. With access to a mobile phone, Vankar is able to reduce the time she once spent searching for markets for her flowers and stay in closer contact with her customers.

“And today, because of that simple device,” Verveer said, “this woman who had been poor has been able to grow her income, to start yet another job, to better take care of her family, and to prosper through economic opportunity that has come to her.”

Verveer was joined in the webcast by Priyanka Matanhelia, who has researched mobile usage among youth in India. She compared Mumbai, a cosmopolitan city of about 14 million that ranks as one of the world’s largest, to the city of Kanpur, with a population of about 5 million. In both places, there is great enthusiasm among youth for mobile phones.

In Mumbai, the usage patterns of males and females were nearly identical in recent years, Matanhelia said. In Kanpur, where the women were equally aware of the role mobile technology could play in advancing their education and careers, they did not — for the most part — gain access to cell phones.

“Because it’s a patriarchal society, parents feel it’s more important for a male child to have the latest technology or the tools to advance their career and educational opportunities,” Matanhelia said. “And typically the women are given less priority when it comes to spending money on their personal development. And I think that is one of the main reasons why women get left behind when it comes to access to the latest tools and technologies to empower their lives.”

In Kanpur and similar areas, Matanhelia spoke to women who did have mobile phones and found that a number of them had received them as gifts from their brothers during the festival of Raksha Bandhan, which celebrates the sibling relationship. “It’s providing access,” she said, “but it just shows how the society thinks of males and females as different entities and not at an equal level.”

A participant in the webcast asked Verveer whether empowering women was a matter of increasing their income or making them more connected to the outside world. “Empowerment really means the ability to be able to improve your life in many ways,” Verveer responded. “For women it is access to health care, access to education, being free from violence, being able to participate economically and politically, being part of the community.”

A video clip from the webcast ( http://www.america.gov/multimedia/video.html?videoId=648847610001 ) is available on America.gov.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.  Web site: http://www.america.gov
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