In rich countries, mobile phones make it easier to do things we were already doing—send email instead of snail mail, navigate the world without wrestling with a map, hail a ride without standing outside in the rain. But for the world’s most marginalized women, a mobile phone doesn’t just make their old life more convenient; it can help them build an entirely new life. That’s because connectivity is a solution to marginalization.
If you’re a woman who has never stepped into a bank, mobile banking offers you a foothold in the formal economy and a chance at financial independence. If you’re expected to do all the cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing, your income potential improves dramatically as you gain opportunities to connect with customers, trainings, and professional organizations—all from your home. If you’re worried about the stigma you’ll encounter when you ask for contraceptives at your local clinic, an e-commerce delivery platform can help you reassert control over your body and your future.
In other words, women are not only using their mobile phones to access services and opportunities. They’re using them to change social norms and challenge the power structures that perpetuate gender inequality.
The catch is that the gender gap in both mobile phone ownership and mobile internet use remains significant. A recent study of ten countries across Africa, Asia, and South America found that—regardless of their age, education, wealth, or location—women are almost 40 percent less likely than men to have used the internet.
There are a lot of reasons why this gap exists. Cost, literacy (both digital and otherwise), and social norms are three of the big ones. In response, mobile phone companies who are eager to tap into this market are creating business strategies that target women customers. In Kenya and Nigeria, gender and development programs are putting new focus on teaching women digital literacy skills. We’ve partnered with an initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School to begin testing solutions to the social norms barrier.
When I think about why it’s so important to get more mobile phones in the hands of women, I think about Nikmah, a woman I met in Indonesia last October. Nikmah told me she’d tried for years to support her three children by selling vegetables, but she never could seem to make ends meet. Her situation became even more untenable after she had to flee an abusive husband.
Today, Nikmah is one of more than a million Indonesians making a living through Go-Jek, a popular mobile platform for rides, food deliveries, and other services. The app connects her to a steady stream of customers and income, and she is paid through a mobile bank account, so she has total control over the money she earns. She can now afford to provide for her children without having to depend on a man who mistreats her. And through her phone, she’s formed a network with other women service providers, who pool their savings to support each other through accidents or health emergencies.
Nikmah told me, “Life is like a wheel. Sometimes you’re under, sometimes you’re on top.” For women like her who have spent so much of their lives trapped on the bottom, mobile technology creates new opportunities to fight inequity and lift themselves up. We can help women seize these opportunities by ensuring that inequity doesn’t keep them from having access to technology in the first place.
From Bill & Melinda Gates 2019 Annual Letter