July 30, 2012 - 1:40 pm
By Christopher Burns | Economic Growth and Agricultural Development Advisor the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

When we think about mobile technology access to services, opportunities and products – particularly in remote, rural corners of the developing world – we occasionally miss the chance to emphasize the importance of tackling macro-level regulatory frameworks and policy-making functions.  Instead, we contemplate what it takes to provide women and men with the critical, micro-level social services and infrastructure they need to drive economic growth and strengthen family and community livelihoods.  We focus on reaching  “the last mile” and the components necessary for rural connectivity. 

But both ends of the spectrum must be targeted. 

Many assume if the mobile infrastructure has been built, connectivity exists and people can afford it, customers will sign-up and use the service.  Doing so will allow people the prospect of maximizing mobile technologies that can drive development change.  But this is often not true for many women in the developing world, where – although the infrastructure exists – they are 21 percent less likely to own mobile phones than their male counterparts.  There are greater factors at play -- primarily cost of mobile services, limited technical literacy and traditional attitudes around women owning productive assets.  These key barriers have shaped the objectives behind the GSMA mWomen Program.

The GSMA mWomen Global Development Alliance between USAID, AusAID, GSMA and Visa aims to halve the mobile phone gender gap in the developing world by 2014,  enabling 150 million more women to own mobile phones.  One key objective to reaching the program’s goal is to improve the policy environment for female beneficiaries.  This includes, as noted in the GSMA mWomen Policy Recommendations paper, the collection of “accurate and comprehensive data about women’s use of ICTs [Information and Communication Technologies] and mobile technology.” 

By regulators encouraging the disaggregation of mobile ownership by male and female users, the private and public sectors gain a more nuanced understanding of their end-users, and are thereby better able to design products and services that meet consumers’ unique needs. This is particularly true for women who face larger constraints to mobile access.  As an example, recent research suggests that only 2 percent of women living on less than $2 a day have used the mobile Internet. 

Simultaneously, regulators can play a key role in establishing, shaping or unlocking existing Universal Service Funds (USFs) and applying them to where they are more strategic and efficient in reaching underserved communities.  Several countries are sitting upon a golden opportunity with respect to unused or under-used USFs. Why not capitalize on the potential to redirect them towards lasting, positive change?

Stakeholders and partners have been calling for such policy adjustments for a while now. Given the magnitude of mWomen and the increased focus on this issue, there is no better time to collectively commit to making it a reality. 

In order to create the enabling environment that drives women’s access to mobile technology, we must engage a host of actors working in tandem, including MNOs, host governments, development practitioners, financial institutions, regulating agencies and female beneficiaries themselves.  As the GSMA mWomen Program moves forward, we look to each of these entities – but in particular, our regulatory colleagues – to think creatively about how the existing legal and regulatory hurdles can be overcome to help connect a key demographic of society that, without our support, may never benefit from the innumerable opportunities provided by mobile access.

More information is available through the Program’s Fact Sheet and on the GSMA mWomen website.

Christopher Burns serves as Economic Growth and Agricultural Development Advisor in the Office of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

To learn more about women in ICT see: WISENET: the Women in ICTs Shared Excellence Network