Calling for gender equality

“More than twenty years after the birth of the Internet, two-thirds of the planet’s population still do not have regular access to the Internet, and a greater proportion of these unconnected global citizens are women. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations specialized agency for ICT, estimates that some 200 million fewer women are online than men. Women are coming online later and, as a gender, more slowly, than men. Digital gender gaps reflect gender inequalities throughout societies and economies—a range of socio-economic and political factors affect gender divides, with attitudes and cultural beliefs likely to be self-reinforcing. Women or girls may be choosing not to go online, or be prevented from going online, because there is a belief that women and girls cannot master technology—but if women fail to go online, they may never master technology, and miss out on acquiring vital ICT skills which are helpful in everyday life, and increasingly essential in the modern digital economy. Women may also miss out on new opportunities of earning more income, starting a new business, accessing or selling products to new markets, participation in decision-making processes that affect their lives, finding or changing jobs, or forging new contacts and accessing information—in short, women may miss out on the new digital opportunities offered by access to the Internet and broadband.

For these reasons and more, in March 2013, the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Digital Development endorsed a fifth broadband advocacy target, calling for gender equality in access to broadband by 2020.”

—from “Doubling Digital Opportunities: Enhancing the Inclusion of Women & Girls In the Information Society,” a report by the Broadband Commission Working Group on Broadband and Gender, 2013. I​TU and UNESCO set up the Broadband Commission for Digital Development in 2010, responding to UN efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals.

Mobile partnerships build a bridge for women

By Henriette Kolb

Studies have shown that women reinvest 90 percent of their incomes in community and family versus roughly 35 percent for men. And yet women are frequently shut out of fully benefiting from and contributing to economic activity owing to constrained access to health care, education, market information, and financial services.

According to recent data, 300 million fewer women than men across the world use mobile phones. But those that do enjoy enhanced access to information and markets, and can more effectively participate in and contribute to economic activity. This improvement in women’s productivity and livelihoods is critical not only for development but for GDP. Vodafone has put the economic value of closing the mobile gender gap at $6.6 billion, and that figure covered only the 27 markets in which it is active. Figures like this demonstrate that mobile is no longer “just” about making a call—it’s about making the call for shared prosperity beyond gender and geographical barriers.

Mobile telephony has the power to do this and overcome other social and economic bottlenecks faced by women. However, there’s the not-so-small matter of getting mobile phones into the hands of women that need them most. Across the developing world, several partnerships are underway to overcome this access gap.


In India, mobile operator Telewings, also known as Uninor, partnered with GSMA, a trade organization for mobile operators, to roll out a pilot project to launch a service featuring a pair of linked SIMs; recharging one with airtime will top up the other with bonus minutes. The only criteria is that at least one of the SIMs must be used by a woman. Uninor hopes its trial will shed light on barriers to women’s access to mobile phones and services, and improve tele-density among rural Indian women.


In Sub-Saharan Africa, as mobile penetration has grown rapidly, demand has developed for more sophisticated mobile financial products. In Ghana, a partnership of local operator Tigo and the insurance firms MicroEnsure and Vanguard Life offers Family Care Insurance, a free-of-charge life insurance plan. Tigo customers gain cover based on airtime purchases made during the previous month, which makes Tigo “stickier” to its subscribers. In markets where the vast majority of mobile users buy pre-paid cards and may switch among as many as three SIM cards, customer loyalty is essential to mobile providers.

The value of this life insurance offering to poor Ghanaian families is difficult to overstate. MicroEnsure claims that because “less than two percent of Ghanaians have a life insurance policy, families typically sell assets, [and] use savings to finance funerals. Women and children are often the first to be affected; children are removed from school and women and children forgo proper nutrition and healthcare.”

Mobile banking also offers a path to better health and safety. For instance, with support from the Vodafone Foundation, a Tanzanian hospital recently set up Text to Treatment, a
service that uses the online currency service M-Pesa to facilitate treatment for obstetric fistula—a childbirth-related condition that affects one million women worldwide. Prospective patients receive cash transfers via M-Pesa for transport costs; service “ambassadors” receive rewards for each patient referral.

Mobile banking and the “sticky” factor: The story of M-Pesa

This 6-minute animation tells the story of how M-Pesa, the popular mobile money transfer program, came to Kenya. It’s narrated by Michael Joseph, the managing director of mobile money at Vodafone and the program’s founder.

Mobile partnerships feed entrepreneurship

By Sevi Simavi

There’s no disputing that mobile phone ownership, coupled with value added services, gives women in business a chance to succeed. But when the mobile industry and the development sector partner to offer sustainable, tailored solutions for women entrepreneurs, the results are transformational. The Cherie Blair Foundation’s partnership with Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and Vodafone Foundation in India is an ongoing example of how mobile technology makes a lasting difference in women’s lives.

SEWA’s Rural Distribution Network (RUDI) is a successful agricultural cooperative with 3,000 members. Based in Gujarat, India, RUDI buys raw produce, such as lentils and spices, from local farmers and adds value by cleaning, processing, and packaging the stock. These are then sold across Gujarat through a network of saleswomen, known as “RUDIbens,” reaching over a million households annually.

The growing scale of RUDI’s operations could no longer be supported by its informal paper-based management system and word-of-mouth stock orders. In partnership with SEWA and the Vodafone Foundation in India, the Cherie Blair Foundation developed a mobile-based management information system to support the RUDI network.

Before the inception of the system, RUDIbens traveled up to seven hours to order and collect stock from the RUDI processing centers, only to find the products unavailable because of difficulties forecasting demand. The mobile application now enables the women to place orders and generate sales reports using their simple feature phones. The information is sent to a cloud-based server using inexpensive SMS and orders are instantly captured on the RUDI management computers, providing greater visibility of their sales by product, geography, and RUDIben. Since the application launched in December 2012, RUDI has increased its turnover by 10 percent.

This model proves that for women entrepreneurs in developing economies, even the most basic phones can be the key to increasing income and managing their businesses.