Woman and Mobile Phones: And who will join this standing up

Posted by CorinneRamey on Apr 02, 2008

In 2005, Samsung released a phone designed especially for women. The phone, with a "curvaceous, feminine design" included applications like a fragrance and aromatherapy guide, a shopping list, a calorie counter, a biorhythm clock, and a calendar to help women keep track of their periods. "Almost every woman will desire it," wrote one reviewer, in a piece entitled "High tech for the ladies."

Those marketers and reviewers have it all wrong.

For women around the world, mobile phones are not about sexy designs and knowing when it's that time of the month. Mobile phones are slowly changing the lives of women who use them and the communities in which they live. They've created a path out of poverty for many women in the developing world, as microfinance and "phone ladies" running businesses increase in numbers. Mobiles are enabling translation for victims of domestic violence in the United States, provide Ukrainian sex workers a way to safety, and protect Philippine domestic workers in the Middle East. Mobile phones are giving voice to female reporters in Africa and encouraging free speech in Egypt. And as mobile phones become increasingly ubiquitous -- they're already at 3.3 billion and counting -- they are likely to continue to influence the lives and societies of the women who use them in the future.

Safety and Security

In California in the United States, mobile phones are helping police officers communicate with victims of domestic violence. When an officer goes to the home of a domestic violence victim who does not speak English, the officer and the victim pass a mobile phone back and forth, using the translation provided by a call-in service called Language Line. The program was the response to a study that concluded that language issues were a major impediment to a comprehensive response to domestic violence issues. "A victim of domestic violence who didn't speak English as a primary language was meeting barrier after barrier in trying to get help," Jill Tregor, a Senior Policy Analyst with the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women, told MobileActive. The officers use phones donated by AT&T to call Language Line, a commercial service which provides translation in 170 languages. In San Francisco, where more than 30% of the population are immigrants and more than 100 languages are spoken, the mobile phone translation service has proved to be a useful and potentially life-saving tool.

Mobile phone helplines also contribute to the safety of women around the world. In the Philippines a program called SOS SMS uses text messages to connect Philippine migrants who are working overseas, also known as Overseas Filipino Workers, with resources and immediate assistance in emergencies. Philippine workers have faced all kinds of challenges working overseas, including verbal and physical abuse, rape, employers refusing to pay their workers, racial discrimination, kidnapping, and sex slavery. Philippine workers need only to send a text message to the SOS SMS short code with the letters "SOS" and their name to activate a network of NGOs, government agencies, and migrant advocates that can collaborate to save lives.

Vic Barrazona, who does project management for SOS SMS from Saudi Arabia, told MobileActive that the text message helpline has been particularly vital for female Philippine workers in the Middle East, who face additional barriers of societal norms and attitudes towards women in that region. "If you're a domestic helper in Saudi Arabia, you can't go out by yourself," Barrazona told MobileActive. "Most of the time you are confined in the house of your employer. There are some cases of abuses." The helpline receives about five messages each day, and about 60% of the messages come from Saudi Arabia.

In Ukraine, three mobile phone carriers collaborated with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to establish a toll-free trafficking hotline. The IOM estimates that more than 100,000 Ukrainians have been trafficked since 1991. According to the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, Ukraine is one of the largest exporters of women to the international sex industry. Of 500,000 Ukrainian women who migrated to Western Europe over the past few years, more than 100,000 end up in the sex industry. According to the IOM, "The number "527", which routes all calls to the free IOM service, provides information on the realities and dangers facing migrants abroad, including human trafficking and the consequences of irregular entry and stay in a foreign country and objective information on legal methods of migration."

In an email to MobileActive, Natalia Krivtsova, Svetlana Batsyukova, and Olena Bogdanova of IOM wrote that the organization originally started the hotline "simply because people need access to free confidential reliable advice. It provides accurate information about risks that migrants could face abroad and also refers victims of trafficking for reintegration assistance." Between April of 2007 and February of 2008 the hotline has received almost 9,000 calls. According to to IOM, the hotline has faced some problems, but this may be the flip side of its success. "There are quite a few cases when people call just to fool around, especially children, since free hotlines are not so common in Ukraine yet," they wrote. "The fact that it is a women's organization seems to add some spice to this situation. Sometimes specialists are threatened by criminals. That's a serious problem and an indication of the Centre's effectiveness at the same time."

Reproductive Health

For women around the world issues of reproductive health and sexually transmitted diseases can be difficult topics. Partly because theses subjects are often socially taboo, mobile phones offer a way of both providing answers to questions on sensitive topics and introducing issues of reproductive health into the larger conversation.

For example, SexInfo, a sexual information hotline in California, provides sexual information for teenagers via text message. For example, if a condom breaks a teen can text the short code for the service and receive the following message, followed by the hours and address of a clinic: "if u hve sex, u can get an STD + not know it. Chlamydia, gonorrhea=no symptoms most of the time Drop in get chcked FREE."

"A lot of teenagers don't go to clinics, and they're afraid to ask questions. Text messaging, it's no one's business but yours," Michelle Irving, a worker with the city's Department of Public Health, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "They don't have to talk to someone if they think they're pregnant or their condom broke. It's confidential, so no one has to feel embarrassed or humiliated." Other similar programs are available in London, Australia, and Singapore.

A program in Mexico, called the Zumbido project, assisted women not by offering the help of professionals but rather the support of a social network, brought together by text message. In the three-month pilot study, run by UK-based consultancy company SHM, 40 HIV-positive Mexicans (both women and men) were given mobile phones and divided into four groups of 10 each. They were connected through a network, so that each text message that a person sent was received by every member of their 10 person group. Project coordinator Anna Kydd told MobileActive that HIV/AIDS patients face a variety of challenges in Mexico, including isolation, stigma, discrimination, and having to deal with emotional issues like telling their families that they have HIV. "Although medical treatment is free in Mexico, a lot of people still face lots of day-to-day challenges," she said. The participants said that they generally lacked the counseling and information, both medical and emotional, to deal with their illness. "It became obvious that the mobile phone had huge potential and value to create these networks," said Kydd.

Kydd said that using the mobile phones gave the women in the study a sense of empowerment. One woman in the project, said Kydd, had never been to school and had no control of the money in her household. Her husband managed everything, and her mobile phone was the first thing that she had ever owned and had control over. "Being given a phone empowered her very much because it was her phone that she had ownership over. Suddenly she could express herself," said Kydd. By the end of the pilot study, the woman said she was planning on buying credit for her phone -- a decision and purchase she made without the help of her husband. "That mobile phone really did something quite special for her, which I didn't feel very much with the men that were in the project," said Kydd.

Although both women and men were involved in the pilot study, Kydd felt that the women benefited the most from the support network. "The majority of the men in the project who had HIV were gay and more connected and already [before the study] had a better network. With the women, there was much more discrimination and isolation, and a lot more stigma." She said that the women -- who were forced to juggle work, child care, and domestic responsibilities in addition to coping with the physical and emotional challenges of being HIV positive -- had more complicated lives than the men. Sending text messages on mobile phones allowed them to support each other in the cracks of time that existed in their busy lives. "They communicated on the way to work or when dropping off their children," said Kydd. "The mobile phone in that perspective was really, really good for them."

Although they have yet to integrate mobile phones into their work, Krista Dong and Zinhle Thabethe from iTeach see the potential of mobile phones in AIDS work in South Africa. Through their work with iTeach, the two women seek to improve education and treatment of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis in public hospitals in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. KwaZulu-Natal has one of the highest rates of HIV-TB co-infections in the world. In this video interview, Dong and Thabethe told MobileActive that women have been hugely affected by the crisis. "Our hospital has had, consistently over the past two years, over 60% of the pregnant women HIV positive," said Dong.

Although the iTeach program has yet to integrate mobile phones into its efforts to administer anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs and educate vulnerable South African populations, the women believe that mobiles could be immensely useful to their work. Dong said, "To deal with the scope of this problem, to even begin to make a dent, we need new ideas, crazy ideas. And everyone, everyone has a cell phone." Mobile phones, the two women predict, could exponentially scale their work, allowing technology to increase the amount of people that their efforts could reach. The women dream of text messages reminding patients to take ARV drugs, a clinical helpline that people could text or call when there is an emergency, and various educational outreach efforts on mobile phones. "Everyone has a cell phone regardless of their level of education, their socio status, their economic status," said Thabethe. "If you can use something that is there already available to people I think it will be one of the ways we can reach out to the masses of people."

Women's Voices

In rural Kenya, women are dramatically underrepresented in the political process. "I don't know why women have not been vying for political positions and I want to find out for my own person whether Kenyans are ready to vote for women leaders in the coming general elections," said Susan Kuria, a mobile phone reporter working in the Laikipada district of Kenya. In a video interview recorded on a mobile phone, she asked various people why women are not well-represented in Parliament, and received answers ranging from "tradition," and educational reasons to "women are not violent like men."

Kuria is one of several reporters using mobile phones for citizen journalism through a project of Media Focus on Africa in collaboration with AfricaNews. Many of Kuria's videos -- available here -- focus on the role of women in Kenyan politics. The project has helped to give a voice to populations that are generally underrepresented in mainstream media coverage of politics, including women and people in rural areas. All of the video interviews are filmed using Nokia n73 mobile phones.

Linda de Kooning, a media consultant at Media Focus on Africa, told MobileActive that the most surprising result of the citizen journalism initiative has been issues having to do with women's civic participation. "There were a lot of problems convincing the women to do interviews," she said. "They're more shy and not as willing to give their opinion." This trend seemed to continue at the voting booth. "I was kind of shocked by the fact that women weren't really voting themselves but following their husbands' footsteps. The men had the voting cards of the women," she said. By giving both the female journalists and women in rural communities a chance to express themselves politically, the program hopes to encourage civic participation and involvement from marginalized women throughout Kenya.

Farther north, in Egypt, a mobile phone video sent between mobile phones seeks to promote women's rights. The video, produced by Egyptian artist Ahmad Sherif, is designed to be spread virally via mobile phone. The video, called "Free Women," addresses women's rights issues such as freedom of dress, freedom of faith, and way of life. The narration, set over changing animated images of a woman's face with changing attire, says,

Muslim? Great. Christian? Perfect. Jewish? Shalom. Veil? Why not. Niqab? Be my guest. No Niqab? Your choice. Atheist? Whatever. You're ready to die for God? It's your life. You would die for Adel Imam? Who wouldn't...

Although Sherif doesn't know how many people have viewed the video, it has been viewed on YouTube almost 20,000 times. Two other videos produced by Sherif, "Free Love" and "Free Speech," also address issues that are considered taboo in Egyptian society. "Our country is politically and economically suffocating," he wrote in an email to MobileActive. "These videos are meant to show that it is indeed possible to address openly, with no taboo or fear, sensitive issues such as sex, religion and politics."

Economic Development

Throughout the developing world, mobile phones have been empowering women to not only become entrepreneurs, but to take a more active and equal role in the social and business networks of their communities. In the book Mobile Telephony: Leveraging Strengths and Opportunities for Socio-Economic Transformation in Nigeria, Jummai Umar writes that mobile phones have altered traditional social orders, both in terms of class and gender. Umar writes,

Some of the poorest women in the villages held in their hands instruments of global communication, thereby causing ripples in the highly stratified villages. Even a relatively rich person in the village had to walk up to a poor woman's home for a service needed. The phone services were being retailed in these villages almost exclusively by women, since it was the men who went to the cities for work or trade or even to foreign countries as migrant workers, while it was the women left behind in the villages who needed to contact their men traveling or residing outside.

Female phone operators don't only benefit economically themselves, but contribute to the economic development of communities -- and especially other women -- at large. Mobile phones connect female traders to the outside world, allowing them to save valuable time and money that it would have cost for them to walk to visit suppliers or customers. Phones connect them to outside information, such as intermediaries and price information, allowing them to run better and more efficient businesses. In a survey of female market traders in the Obiaruku market region of Nigeria, for example, 95% of survey respondents said that mobile phones had a significant impact on their business.

In some parts of the developing world, mobile phones take the place of personal computers, providing technological solutions to common problems. In these areas, mobile phones are an ideal alternative, as many villagers lack the connectivity, electricity, money, and dry environment that computers require. In the Madurai region in southern India, for example, women are using a system called CAM to record business transactions. As Steve Barth writes in Mobile Enterprise,

Women in microfinance cooperatives are working with a system called CAM that uses Nokia 6600 mobile phones to record daily transactions made on small loans to buy livestock for farms or to open tiny retail businesses. The phone's camera is used to take a picture of a bookkeeping form and identify the document. Then the phone prompts the user (in Tamil) to input numbers associated with the data fields. When the last key is pressed, the information is automatically sent via text message to a central server.

The CAM system was developed by Tapan Parikh, a professor at University of California Berkley School of Information in the United States. Parikh has designed several different mobile phone software solutions that work to encouragement economic empowerment in the developing world. According to Parikh, the most successful technological solutions work because they include village leaders, customers, NGOs, and others in the design process "This is the only way to ensure longterm sustainability and benefit," he said. Parikh was named the 2007 Humanitarian of the Year by MIT's Technology Review Magazine.

Perhaps the most often-cited example of women using mobile phones are the "phone ladies" that dot the landscapes of many developing countries. These "phone ladies" are part of the Grameen Foundation's Village Phone program, that gives women in poor countries -- the program started in Bangladesh, and has now spread to several other countries including Rwanda and Uganda -- access to microcredit to buy a mobile phone. This phone is then rented out to other villagers on a per-call basis, and the phone lady pays back the loan to the microcredit agency.

The program first started in Bangladesh in March of 1997. The first participant in the program, 44-year-old seamstress Laily Begum, has now moved from begging on the streets to living in a two-bedroom house with her family that has a television and refridgerator. After repaying her loan, she eventually earned about twice as much each month as the average Bangladeshi makes in a year.

However, Begum's mobile phone business is no longer successful due to the proliferation of mobile phones in even the poorest areas of Bangladesh. As Richard Shaffer wrote in an article in Fast Company, "Grameen organization continues to boast that its Village Phone program has been incredibly successful... establishing a clear path out of the poverty cycle... But it turns out, the legend is far out of date. The proliferation and democratization of technology has bested the economics of microenterprise. In Bangladesh today, the only one making real money on GrameenPhone's wireless service is Grameen Phone." The business model of the Grameen Phone program is based on shared phone access. As phones are becoming more ubiquitous and penetration rates increase and there simply is less shared phone use, there are some questions whether this is a sustainable business model for women in the future.


From providing health information to making women-run businesses more lucrative, mobile phones have impacted women all over the world. However, the seemingly endless possibilities of mobile phones for women bring with them a unique set of challenges. As Kutoma J. Wakunuma wrote, mobiles can reinforce existing gender relationships, further strengthening male-dominated societies and power structures. As Wakunuma said of a three-year study in Zambia,

The study found that mobile phone access and use has positive impacts for women. They benefit from faster, cheaper communication and a strengthening of family, friend and business-related social networks. However, mobile phones also provide a new focal point for social conflict between spouses and can reinforce traditional gender power differences. This happens as some husbands determine how wives use their phones, and even whether or not they are allowed to continue owning a mobile.

Like any new technology, mobiles create problems as well as solutions. To this point, much research and data on mobile phones has lacked a focus on gender. Although the social and economic advantages surely outweigh the disadvantages, more gender-focused research and projects are necessary to determine the potential effect of mobiles for women in the developing world.

P.S. "And who will join this standing up" is a reference to a poem by June Jordan.

Photo credit to Seema K K.

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